So after giving careful consideration to another bit of zombie theorizing, I had a random deep thought. I’ve spent a bunch of time talking about memes here and I realized I’ve never actually gotten around to saying what I mean. Meme is one of those words tossed around a lot without anyone giving a real accounting of what they’re talking about. So I’m going to try and explain what they are, for shits and giggles.

Rather than try and give you an abstract definition of something I’m not sure I even really understand, I’m just going to give you an example and some of the assumptions I’m working under. The first is that memes are something like species, and a good example will be have some common traits. There will be some sort of fitness indicator, recognizable traits to make sure you’ve got a single thing that’s persisting and that the meme operates in a specific environment that’s something like an ecosystem.

Here’s my example:

An example of the species fuuuucius comicus.

This is one of probably thousands of
‘fuuuuuu- comics which are an example of an Internet phenomenon found primarily on Reddit. Reddit is, to coin a phrase, a user driven news aggregator. It works, basically, like this (I’m fairly new to Reddit; correct me if I’m wrong): people who go to reddit submit stories, which are fed into a giant hopper and splashed onto the Reddit homepage. People read the stories or what not, and vote on them, which makes them easier for other people to see, which leads to more people voting on them.

If you know me, or have a certain view of the world, then this immediately piques your attention. You’ve got a system that sets up competition for scarce resources (in this case, you attention) that has built in feedback. It looks, to me at least, like a very specific type of life. Now, I’m arguing by analogy and metaphor right now, because I don’t have the skills necessary to treat this rigorously, but I think there’s something more to this than wishful thinking.

Look at it this way: Reddit is the environment, the ecosystem that ideas live in. Food is your attention, or the attention of the people who visit Reddit, anyway. Reddit is the savannah and your vote up or down the hopper is a fat juicy antelope. Or maybe grass for the wildebeast, the analogy kind of breaks down when you get fine grained with it.

So what’s the comic? Well, the comic is an animal, shaped by a combination of human sensibilities and evolutionary factors. This idea that ideas copy themselves and compete for your attention and mind-share is the core of the meme idea. Like all good ideas, it starts to break down almost immediately.

Lets look at a classic: rick rolling . Some of you are going “I know what’s coming” but for everyone else I’ll let you in on the joke.

So if this is a meme, it should reproduce, leaving a trail of examples showing gradual changes that lead to more examples. Sounds good, but where does the ‘rickrolling’ meme end? With a gene, there’s a specific thing you can keep an eye on, a marker that denotes exactly which elements are getting shuffled. Memes have no equivalent to the genome, the actual operating system for biological evolution. With rickrolling you can’t separate exactly what the meme is, never mind determine what counts for heredity. Is the meme for rickrolling limited to just that song? Just that version? Is it descended from the ‘bad music irony’ family of memes or the ‘tricked you into clicking on this surprise link.’ (As an aside, I think the rickroll is the modern descendant of the goatse.cx thing. Do yourself a favor and just leave it at that if you don’t know what I’m talking about)

Back to the ‘fuuuu comics.’ Fuu comics follow the general pattern of ‘unfortunate thing, more unfortunate thing, stressed out face.’ There are mutant strains though, variations on the main concept that have worked their way into the meme, much like spots worked their way into the genepool of leopards or the peacock’s tail worked its way into mating rituals. Some of these are simple- the Everything Went Better Than Expected twist or the evil faced guy who torments the main character. The constant is some variation on ‘rage guy’ (the main character) and the situation.

When I look at a place like Reddit, part of me sees a jungle of ideas, all struggling mightily to be seen. As a result, I look at the products of these jungles with an eye towards biology. Quite a bit of this may be a product of having a hammer (evolutionary thinking) and hunting for nails. But there’s something to this metaphor that explains a lot about how society runs. You can see how an idea is introduced and how it runs a course eerily similar to that taken by a biological organism. The new idea starts simple and catches on, hitting a certain point after which it spawns new variations. There’s the pop culture variations:

which mix the meme with another popular idea, the Warhol repurposing

and many more.

Like all memes, the Fuuu comic will eventually go extinct, fossilized in the wayback machine and various specialized archives to be unearthed by future generations who will ask themselves:”What the fuck were they doing back then?” except they’ll probably say it in Chinese or some shit.

Addendum: I’ve just learned that the Fuuu comic originated in that den of iniquity known as 4chan before spilling out into Reddit, which is a lovely demonstration of a meme finding a new niche. 4chan is like the center of the kraken that’s the internet, by the way, and probably worthy of its own note.


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