In the year 1993 Midway Games released an arcade machine by the name of “Mortal Kombat,” which sparked a public outcry against video game violence in American culture. The outrage was so profound that it not only drew the attention of the United States federal government, it also led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, that would rate video games based on content, similar to how MPAA would rate films in the US. This controversy would plague the video game industry for decades to come, culminating in a backlash that prevails to this day.
Then in 2005 a pair of teenagers opened a YouTube account and proceeded to make light of the games controversy by lip synching to the lyrics of the theme song to the game, (“Techno Syndrome”, by the Immortals) while acting in idiotic and outrageous fashions. This video, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMf40daefsI Smosh, Mortal Kombat Theme Youtube) would not only launch the internet sensation, Smosh, it would spawn imitators such as the infamous “Numa Numa” video.
Internet memes are a fairly recent phenomenon and are at their core difficult to explain. On the surface they appear to be nothing more than fads that have shorter lifespans. However there are some differences between a fad and a meme. The most obvious is their lifespans, fads tend to spike after a few years and fade away, while memes can be popular for a few weeks and then forgotten as swiftly as they arrived. A second difference between a fad and meme is the trend of how they get started. Typically a fad is begun when a celebrity does something different to stand out and their fans begin to imitate causing the fad to trickle down to the masses.
On the other hand Memes work in a different manner altogether. They do not necessarily begin with a celebrity and they do not enjoy a top down disbursement. Instead what you see is often someone who is presumably anonymous puts a video, photo, or other type of meme on the net and it sort of spirals outward and then fades back in on itself.
What makes a meme funny is mostly subjective, as with any form of humor. Take the Smosh video as an example. Here you have Mortal Kombat, the central focus of violence in our culture spawning ridiculous accusations and outrageous reactions, and then along comes a video that makes light of the situation using a combination of irony and satire. The presentation is mostly childish, these two teenagers are lip synching to the lyrics of the theme song to one of the most notorious video games in history. They accompany this with crude behavior and funny facial expressions. The irony being that the game is supposed to be inappropriate for children.
It could be argued that these types of internet videos are not memes but merely viral videos. So then what is a viral video? A meme is defined as something that spreads from person to person in a culture. A viral video is something that is shared through non-traditional means of marketing, also called viral marketing. This can cause some confusion as to the very definition of a meme, and the relationship between a meme, viral marketing, and a fad.
There are subtle differences that distinguish a fad from a meme; however the differences that distinguish a meme from viral marketing are even more subtle and difficult to define. Typically the term viral marketing applies to a commercial product that is dispersed through the use of what is called word of mouth.
The way it works is one person becomes aware of said commercial property or product and then tells another and so on and so forth. Memes are also spread by word of mouth. There is somewhat of a contrast, they do not necessarily have to be commercial in origin. This is complicated when a viral video that starts out as a meme, such as the Smosh video, turns into a commercial enterprise. Just as the “Numa-Numa” video began as a meme and turned into a viral marketing tool for a new commercial property. This type of reverse commercialization is not very typical of memes, but something to consider.
Viral videos and word of mouth are valuable tools in which commercial media enterprises rely heavily to get their products to the public. It could then be argued that a meme is nothing more than a fad that doesn’t stick and a viral marketing effort that fails to turn into a viable commercial venture. This definition alters the entire perception of what is a meme. Perhaps then a meme is merely a viral marketing fad that does not catch on but goes against the establishment? At the very basic essence then a successful meme is really just an unsuccessful fad.
Therefore it can be concluded that a meme is only a meme when it fails to turn into a profitable venture, at which point it transforms into either a fad, or a viral marketing campaign.
Before the internet viral marketing was limited to word of mouth. A single member or a small group within a community would hear a story, see a movie, attend a play or some other form of expression and they would pass it along to their peers. With the advent of the World Wide Web it now has become much easier for these ideas to spread from person to person.
Without the internet memes took longer to spread and this could be the cause of their longer lifespans in previous generations. Now they hardly have time to enter our consciousness before they are wiped from our memories. In a way it is almost their lack of longevity that contributes to their humor, it is spontaneous and therefore does not leave time for one to contemplate why they laugh, just that they found it funny and moved on to the next without giving it a second thought.
The only logical conclusion is that memes, fads, and viral marketing are all intertwined into a modern internet culture that is difficult to explain.