What Are Internet Memes?

23/01/2012 09:54 GMT | Updated 23/03/2012 09:12 GMT

Why is Keanu Reeves so sad? Can I haz cheeseburger? What does the double rainbow mean? As we all know, the internets is serious business and these question are worth considering. What do they all have in common? They're derived from internet memes, a peculiarity that can be best described as a cultural virus.

Internet memes usually consist of jokes, or something deemed so particularly unusual as to warrant special attention and are often spread in the form of pictures or videos. Whilst it may seem that memes are frivolous and senseless, they are not to be underestimated. Beneath the overt nonsense of this cultural peculiarity lie subtle nuances that, believe it or not, shape much of our (particularly young) culture, humour and language.

What's more, memes have the power to transform a nobody into an international star in the space of a day. This can be a force for good, such as when Ted Williams (or The Golden Voice), a homeless man from Brooklyn, became famous after being filmed on the streets by Columbus dispatch reporter Kevin Joy. His fame arrived due to his flawless 'radio voice', which Kevin requested Ted to perform for him on camera. He was eventually hired by a local radio station and began earning for the first time in years (unfortunately, despite the help, Ted was unable to overcome his drug addiction and had to ultimately leave full time employment to seek medical treatment).

Unfortunately memes can also be a force of evil. The random image board on 4chan (/b/) is infamous for being regarded as the cesspit of the internet. For instance, the phrase "Consequences will never be the same" a seemingly humorous malapropism unrelated to anything malicious, originated from a long and drawn out string of insults and harassment from 4chan and Youtube users against a 13-year-old girl known as Jessi Slaughter (real name Jessica Leonhardt). She was targeted simply for being an attention seeker and "for the lulz", that is, she was picked on simply because people found it funny. She received hate mail and threatening phone calls. In response, her father made a video claiming that he would "back trace" the offenders and that, as a result, "consequences will never be the same".

However, it's important to emphasise that a lot of good has come out of 4chan. Many of the internet's most cherished and beloved memes often originate from the random image board and there are many other harmless board that simply want to share common interests.

Memes make good business sense too. If a meme can be cultivated in such a way as to make it viral, the profits made from what is generally a very low budget endeavour can be considerably high. Indeed, there are companies created specifically for the purpose of viral marketing. You have no doubt been subjected to viral marketing in the last few years, such as Old Spice, The Awareness Test and Cadbury's Gorilla, to name just a few.

But how far can one lay claim to the statement that memes are constructs that affect us culturally and socially? It depends entirely on how seriously we want to take the notion of memeology. Indulge me for a moment and consider that memes can be analysed from a psycho-linguistic standpoint. Jacques Lacan was a psychoanalyst and philosopher who came to prominence from the 1950s to the 1980s. He said a lot of weird shit. However, he also said a lot of interesting things about the psychology behind language and communication.

For instance, from a Lacanian point of view one could argue that memes could be considered as an example of the deferral of desire, of the striving for the object cause of desire (objet petit a) manifesting itself within the 'language' of memes - the inability of attainment arises because desire is a property of language and therefore suffers from its limitations, such as the elementary limitation of the fundamental representation of any text (or code of signification, in this case lolcats, pictures of cats with captions on them) becoming constrained by the necessity of its representation to be communicated on a signifier-to-signifier basis via the medium of the subject.

It seems that the subject is both separated and joined by language, including the language of memes; it alienates subjects yet makes communities of them - communities of alienated and alienating individuals. It is this limitation, binding and distanciation found within language and the horror of realising that, as Lacan put it, "man is a subject captured and tortured by language", that could also be said to be present in memes. The only difference is, memes are bizarrely poetic; poetic in the paradigmatic sense, and they give the subject a glimpse of a sort of jouissance... However, let's not forget we are talking about pictures of funny cats and rabbits with pancakes on their head. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.