5 Lifestages of a Meme

According to the only reliable source of knowledge in modern society – Wikipedia – a “meme” is “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.“. Well, that’s what the term used to mean. The Internet has redefined that concept to apply to essentially any piece of media (text, picture, video, etc.) that goes viral enough to breed spin-offs and copies, transcending cultures and spreading across continents.

Today’s meme connoisseurs have dedicated resources at their disposal, such as KnowYourMeme.com, to track current memes and keep an archive of prior ones.

I humbly consider myself to be an Internet-browsing professional. Through extensive and meticulous research I have been able to identify five distinct stages every meme goes through. Below, I share my findings with you, in an attempt to educate you and enhance your appreciation of the world. To illustrate my points I use a very current phenomenon – a song called “Gangnam Style” by PSY (be patient, all will be revealed soon).

SPOILER ALERT: There’s a very high chance that you will hate both the song and me by the end of this post.

When you’re about to hate me, remember who brought you this puppy picture!

Stage 1: Virality

Any concept needs to reach a certain critical mass in order to become elevated to the prestigious “meme” status. That photo of your dog chewing a stress-ball with Obama’s face on it? The one twenty of your friends liked on Facebook? Not a meme! That video of you chewing the same stress ball while drunk and singing “I’m Too Sexy For My Balls”? The one uploaded to Youtube and seen by tens of millions of people? The one mentioned by both John Stewart and Jay Leno in their opening routines? Probably a meme, or close to becoming one!

So, the first stage in any meme’s lifecycle is virality! Now, on to our example.

In mid July 2012 South Korean singer PSY released a music video entitled “Gangnam Style”. The video is an insane amalgam of bad rapping, bad dancing and epilepsy-inducing visuals. Throughout the video your eyes and ears are assaulted by a barrage of events that your brain has no hope of ever processing in a satisfactory manner. In short, it’s awesome!

If you have somehow avoided seeing this visual and auditory equivalent of electroshock therapy up until now, here you go:

As of right now the “Gangnam Style” has 253,690,773 views on Youtube. For comparison, a video of me playing solitaire, uploaded two years ago, has 253,690,770 views less. Oppan Gangnam Style indeed! (edit 20-10-2012: it is now 508,390,243 views, really leaving my solitaire video in the dust).

Stage 2: Copycats

Inevitably, others will want to join the ride. That’s why any meme will soon spawn countless copies. It doesn’t matter what the original target audience of a meme was. Memes transcend all demographic boundaries. What? Don’t believe me? You demand examples? Is that why you’re  screaming “Please, no more Gangnam Style!”. Sure, here you go:

Navy Style:

Baby Style:

Flash Mob Style:

Stage 3: Parodies & Remixes

Eventually, some creative folks will take the “copying” a step further and re-invent the meme by adding other elements to it. They’ll take inspiration in the original meme, but change up the atmosphere and incorporate something new into the mix. That’s how you go from an Asian dance video to…Lord of the Rings?

While you’re at it, why not use computer games to animate your new video-interpretation of the meme?

One of two things is happening right now:

1) You despise me for introducing “Gangnam Style” into your life. In frustration, you try to scream obscenities at your screen, but inexplicably all that comes out are “Gangnam Style” lyrics.

2) You find “Gangnam Style” firmly implanted into your head and consider it the catchiest video since Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”.

Now that I think of it…it’s far more likely that both of those things are happening simultaneously.

In either case, you need a short break from it all. That’s why I want to treat you to one of my favourite meme remixes of all time. In 2003 a video surfaced of a teenager swinging a golf ball retriever, pretending to be a Jedi. The video went viral and the meme became forever known as the “Star Wars Kid”. Then a creative soul decided to make the kid’s dreams come true and added a touch of special effects to the video, turning it into a Hollywood blockbuster. Enjoy:

Stage 4: Meme Fusion

Finally, a meme reaches the pinnacle of its popularity. At this stage the meme gets fused with other memes, current and past, into a perfect blend of awesomeness. Memes of all origins unite to form something new, yet instantly recognizable.

Remember the “Ecce Homo” restoration I’ve talked about just ten days ago? Don’t remember? How about now:

I’ll have you know that “Ecce Homo” is officially a meme by now.

If any of you wonder what happens when you merge the two memes and type “Ecce Homo Gangnam Style” into the search field on Youtube, wonder no longer:

Another great example is people picking up a much older “Hitler Reacts” meme and fusing it with “Gangnam Style”. Why do people insist on introducing Hitler to all things, including an innocent dance video? Because Internet is where logic and reason go to get stabbed and set on fire.

I cannot, in good conscience, let you leave here today with “Gangnam Style” warping your mind and taking place of all rational thoughts. That’s why I want to share a meme-fusion example that’s also a personal favourite of mine. It’s a mash-up of Christian Bale’s famous mad rant on the set of Terminator: Salvation and a video of a kid under the influence of drugs after a visit to the dentist. It goes a little something like:

Stage 5: Obscurity

All good things must eventually come to an end. An internet meme is no exception. No matter how popular a meme is, no matter how many people are copying and sharing it, a day will come when something new will take its place. Yes, even “Gangnam Style” will soon become a thing of the past, even if that catchy tune playing in your head right now says otherwise.

But don’t you cry for “Gangnam Style”. No matter how forgotten it becomes, it will only be a matter of time before it gets picked up and fused with “cyborg-dog juggles lasers”, or whatever other future memes are in store for us. If it doesn’t, I promise to make my own video remix: “Daniel plays solitaire, Gangnam-style”. That should definitely land me more Youtube views!