(n. a collection or a single entity of many minds, as if connected telepathically.)
Are memes becoming the precursor to a networked humanity?
As the internet sped up and Web 2.0. unsteadily came into existence, the pathogenic units of interest known as ‘memes’ sped up as well. Most people are familiar with memes, even if not by name: little packages of cultural information which often but not exclusively images, that are passed around online but also through speech and imitation too. Memes as a word was coined by Richard Dawkins from ‘mimëma’, Greek for ‘something imitated’.
An idea that would have taken a month to rise and pass barely five years ago, is epidemic in days thanks to dense networks like Facebook and Twitter. Memes are fascinating aspects of the newly materialising fabric of internet society: thoughts and ideas of a completely random nature that spread like a disease before dying into a laughable obscurity, signifiers of those who are behind the current. Only a few become endemic – the words ‘lol’ and ‘fml’, Lolcats and Demotivational Posters being four of very few – and global advertising companies are rapidly realising the power of these tiny fragments of culture, that defy all attempts to imitate their power for capitalistic gain.
However, are memes in danger of becoming the signals of internet elitism? Online catalogue of memes Knowyourmeme.com recorded 700,000 unique visitors in September 2010. Bringing snobbery to the internet is perhaps not the right comparison, after all, memes are increasingly plumbing the depths of revulsion in search of the right factor for contagion (Two Girls One Cup, Goatse.cx and TubGirl anyone?). As life migrates more and more online, are these constant snippets of inknowledge the final revenge of the nerds?
A fact that supports this is that Internet Memes originate primarily from two sources, whose structures have baffled sociologists and visitors alike: Something Awful (SA) and its backwater, uncouth cousin 4chan. Two sea spider-laden outcrops on the floor of the internet ocean, their output is unpredictable and watching the movements of their most popular forums is a case study of a very rudimentary Hive Mind, alas with multiple personalities. These sites are one big in-joke after another with no concern for offence – while SA does have relatively strict rules, including one off charging to participate in forums, 4chan’s notorious board /b/ is free and completely insane, unfathomable to the uninitiated. However, it is not that these sites do not have rules: even 4chan has rules and operates a kind of vigilantism aside from the moderators. It is simply their strangely insular nature which makes their status as multiple pathogenic cultivars quite unusual.
However, memes are more powerful than most laymen may consider and permeate into the rest of society that would make an elitist aim redundant: they are successful because everybody knows about them, not in spite of. As previously referenced, they are pieces of information which signify our familiarity and status with the online world. They are difficult and highly derided to force, though companies will still try: those in the video game industry have a relatively high success rate. They frequently move into the outside world into being referenced in speech (such as ‘lol’ and ‘fml’), further highlighting the collision of life on and offline. This last factor has the greatest possible impact on our way of life: memes with causes can and do facilitate a kind of Hive Mind or highly coherent group quality to human demonstrations.
Project Chanology from ‘Anonymous’ (originating themselves from 4 and 7 –chan) is a key example. The project is a protest movement against the Church of Scientology, initially because it tried to remove video of Tom Cruise from the Internet. Reading that is humorous, but the protests have been enough to provoke the Church’s anger. Anonymous is a rhizome (in Deleuze’s sense, a non hierarchical network) within the internet which has now tasked itself with safeguarding the freedom of information online. Some earlier actions are clearly the work of bored computer geeks, hacking and inconveniencing for their own amusement. But organically, the members found a cause and their wrath is increasing. The most visible protests are those wearing the V for Vendetta/Guy Fawkes masks at world protests, mainly outside Scientology centres, but Anonymous is now taking broader targets into its line of fire, including the Australian Government (for its proposed internet censorship plans) in February 2010, creating the website ‘The Persian Bay’ together with The Pirate Bay in order to support the Iranian protests of 2009 and taking offline Aiplex, who were using Anonymous’ own methods to destroy pirating websites on behalf of Bollywood studios.
Do movements like Anonymous mean that the internet can no longer be a refuge from the troubles of the outside world? As law begins to penetrate the web, so too does the fight to retain our rights. With it, the internet has a concept of the immobile bystander, so can we still use the same excuses not to act as we do in real life? Anonymous itself is far from a clearly defined movement but the individuals who merely adopt the name and the motivation for an hour contribute to an extraordinarily vast movement: it is this fluidity that gives it power. Most of these movements are not asking us to get out of our chairs, or even to contribute money: they simply want our attention for half a minute and to perhaps search for a website, or put in a search string, which we do hundreds of times per day. As memes move from being simple images of humour or disgust to Hacktivism, do we really have any excuse any more not to participate? The internet and the material world are colliding – but most of us already synthesise our lives from the two already, and should we not defend our rights? After all, changing your profile picture, or retweeting a message is something we all do, highly frequently: the internet has effectively created a lazy kind of activism and it all works on the principle of the meme. Now, is there really any excuse not to just pass the message along and help humanity while you’re at it?
*I wrote this three months ago and its already dated (thanks wikileaks). I should note that I personally think that I support what anonymous does.