The Nostalgic Malaise of the Internet Meme

“Pop culture has entered a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralised mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.”

(Lanier 2010, p.20)

Internet memes are a pertinent example of the fragmentary internet landscape that many users are now engaged in. They can be defined as digital files with content (including images, videos, and news events) that are adapted into inside jokes through modification and are rapidly spread among wide networks of Internet users. One of the most prolific internet memes is the ‘lolcat’, an example of which can be seen below.

A metatextual version of the lolcat meme - it references Wikipedia and the image itself was sourced from Wikipedia.

Virtually any aspect of popular culture can be singled out to become part of an Internet meme, as either a single image or a patterned sequence of images, usually with superimposed text that humorously refers to a recognisable aspect of a cultural object. The potential success of any meme is hard to predict because the selection of subjects for parody can seem quite random. The phenomenon of the Internet meme can be seen as an understandably fragmented response to the information overload of the Internet. It is the perfect mindless activity for frequent Internet users because the raw materials are there – all that is required is the remix of random aspects of popular culture to create a sense of irony and humour. Here is an explanatory video from the team behind the website ‘Know Your Meme’, exploring the popular RickRoll meme from 2007:

Internet memes offer a glimpse into unique communication between netizens whose constant presence online belies an attachment to the screen, and to the never-ending cycle of remediation in which they become complicit. The popularity of Internet memes reflects Jaron Lanier’s fears about the tendency of Web 2.0 to reduce individuals to fragments available for exploitation by others. Celebrities are a particularly easy source of exploitation, of which the meme ‘Sad Keanu’ is a recent example. A paparazzi photo of Keanu Reeves sitting on a park bench alone eating a sandwich was the origin of a viral meme in which users created variations on the original photo:

So just what are the implications of this seemingly endless cycle of memes? In some ways, it reduces the emotional and affective experiences of everyday life into empty spectacle. As soon as something notable happens in popular culture, it is reduced to a joke and circulated by a mass of indiscriminate users, who simply become entities for transmission. As an individual Internet user, we become valued simply for our willingness to ‘like’ something, or reblog it, or repost it. As Lanier pointed out, most of us get caught up in an endless reaction to culture rather than using the tools available to us to become active producers of new, innovative forms.

Further Reading:

Lanier, Jaron (2010) You are not a gadget. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

An ever-expanding website dedicated to cataloguing the phenomenon of the Internet meme, Know Your Meme.

The page dedicated to the Sad Keanu meme.

A collection of ten popular internet memes (note that the list is already outdated due to the rapid turnover of memes).

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