You Are What You Meme

What Maru the cat says about us.

Videos of Maru the cat have been viewed more than 1 million times

Have you met Maru? No? Maru is a cat. A cute cat. Is there anything special about Maru, apart from the cuteness, which, if we’re honest, he has in common with quite a few other cats?

He lives in Japan. He’s a straight-haired Scottish Fold, four years old, slightly rotund (his name means “round” in Japanese). Otherwise? Well, there’s this thing he does where he jumps into an empty cardboard box. He jumps into all sorts of cardboard boxes. And out. Sometimes he climbs in a bin. Just for fun!

And Maru is famous. At the time of writing, YouTube videos of Maru have been viewed 100 million times. He’s the subject of a recent hardback book, I Am Maru. It consists of 95 glossy pages of photographs of Maru being a cat. In August, three weeks before its publication date, it was the number one cat book on Amazon UK.

Maru is just a cat. But he’s also more than just a cat. Maru is a bellwether of the state of the culture. Maru is a meme.

If you have an email inbox, you will, even if the term is unfamiliar, have come across what it denotes: the viral ephemera that washes across the Internet, proliferates on Facebook walls and trends on Twitter. The Internet is the most potent medium of mass communication in human history, but we use it to exchange videos of cats jumping through cardboard boxes, old Rick Astley songs, and pictures of a rabbit with a pancake balanced on its head.

The success of these memes prompts certain questions. Not least, what’s wrong with us? But also, what do they tell us about our relationships with each other? And what is it that makes certain memes catch fire?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” says Don Caldwell, a reporter for the website Know Your Meme. “There’s not an easy answer. I see them as filling ecological niches. There’s the funny niche, the weird niche, and the cuteness niche: Maru the cat has filled that section of the Internet pretty well for himself.

“The success of a meme is like the reproductive success of an organism,” he adds. “They have to be really well suited to their environment, and the environment of a meme is the cultural zeitgeist.”

The word “meme” was originally minted in the analogue age by the scientist Richard Dawkins. In The Selfish Gene (1976), he proposed that natural selection could work on ideas (which would flourish or fail with us as their ecosystem) as well as genetic material, and chose the term as a counterpart to “gene”: a meme as a unit of cultural transmission. Essentially, this means a contagious idea. The term is broad. Limericks can be a meme. The late 18th-century, epidemic of copycat suicides by men in yellow trousers after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is a meme. Rioting is a meme. So memes, in this extended sense, existed before the Internet and continue to exist outside it.

Latin tags and rhetorical commonplaces were memes; “Kilroy was here” was a meme; chain letters, before the arrival of the Internet, were memes that behaved in a recognizably viral way. There were fax memes and email memes, such as the smutty private email sent by one Claire Swire that ended up being viewed by millions in 2000.

But Internet culture, and the exceptional speed and ease of transmission online, represents a step-change. Early geneticists were attracted to fruit flies as research subjects because their extreme fecundity and short lifecycles meant many generations could be studied in a space of months. When it comes to memes, the Internet is an immense colony of fruit flies living in fast-forward – with all the experimental data widely and instantly available.

Looking at this data, the one distinguishing feature would seem to be downright frivolity. Memes support the idea that the online world has blurred the distinction between work and play – that media has given way to social media. A giant culture of messing about has found its perfect technology. It’s no coincidence that the biennial convention on Internet meme culture, held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 2008, is called ROFLCon, after the common online acronym for “Rolling On the Floor Laughing”.

In line with the evolutionary analogy, the memes that live longest tend to be those that are most adaptable. If the defining art form of the first part of the 20th century was collage, from the constellations of fragments in modernist poetry to the collided images of the plastic arts, that of the digital age is surely the remix or the mash-up. Video clips are spliced together; sound is sampled and repurposed; public domain images are overdubbed with catchphrases. Downfall, a German film made in 2004 showing the last days of Hitler, is appropriated to have the Führer ranting about Oasis splitting up; a sample of Gregg Wallace from Masterchef provides the hook for a techno track (“I like the base, base, biscuit base”). The term exploitable is, in this context, often used as a noun by those who make memes and describe their behavior.

Jonah Peretti, founder of Buzzfeed, a website that keeps track of, promotes and reports what goes on in viral media, says: “We used to think of the world in sections like front-page news, the sports section, the business section, the entertainment section. But when you think about memes and a lot of web culture, things are not organized that way. They’re organized by a sort of social logic. What kind of things do people like to do together? What kinds of things do people relate to? We organize our site by these emotional responses. So we don’t have a sports section and an entertainment section: we have an LOL [laughing out loud!] section, a WTF [good heavens!] section, a geeky section and so on.”

One of the most enduring and easily remixed meme genres is what users on Internet forums call the “image macro”—that is, a picture with lettering across it—of which the best known is probably the LOLcat. There are now millions of these in circulation. The archetypal LOLcat—back in the dawn of time, i.e. 2007, was a fat-looking gray mog asking: “I can has cheezburger?” Subgenres sprang up, multiplied, divided, and adapted. The Bible has been translated into LOLspeak, and LOLwalruses are already old, old news.

Image macros may use a specific image and an associated running joke, or a phrasal template of the sort known as “snowclones”: for example, “to X, or not to X”; “X is the new Y.” Snowclones are catnip to the Internet. A catchphrase from online war games, “I’m in your base, killing your men” (and numerous misspelled alternatives), has spawned the snowclone, “I’m in ur X, Ying ur Z.” You’ll find it on LOLcats: “I’m in ur fridge, eating ur noms.” Kanye West’s famous interruption—“I’ma let you finish”—was another instant snowclone; “Yo Jesus, I’m real happy for you, and I’mma let you finish, but Allah had one of the best ideas of all time. Of all time!” And so forth.

A participatory element undoubtedly helps memes to spread—and to beget other memes. Peretti describes the rise of “Disaster Girl,” which began life as an image of a little girl smiling impishly with a burning house in the background. “What we did at Buzzfeed was to cut her face out of the image and let people put it on top of any disaster. So she went in front of Bill and Monica’s first meeting, Windows Vista, the Hindenburg … People already liked the image and were passing it around. But we made it easier for them to participate and make it their own.”

Memes have penetrated the real world too. Whimsical crazes such as “planking”—where users, and increasingly celebrities including Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, photograph themselves lying flat in odd locations—or “extreme ironing” are activities undertaken so that the images of them can be uploaded to the Internet. One of the most celebrated instances of a meme that straddles the online and offline worlds is the “flashmob”, where a crowd of strangers appears spontaneously in a public space and, for example, breaks into a synchronized dance routine.

The first flashmob was convened in 2003 by Bill Wasik, a writer on technology and culture then working as a senior editor at Harper’s magazine. “It really started as a prank or a joke,” he says. “I’d become very interested in viral email and I thought it would be fun to do a show in New York where the audience would be gathered entirely by viral email. At a certain point, I realized I could be lazier and not come up with an idea for the show: the show would just be everybody coming out to the same place at the same time for no reason.

“I intended this to be a little New York experiment. Just a few weeks into it people were doing them all round the country and then all round the world. I had meant it to be viral in one way, where the emails would spread virally. But then it became viral on a completely other level.”

Wasik’s experience is a good example of the way in which online memes can be analyzed. Memes circulate like jokes and, more often than not, are jokes. But while nobody seems to know where jokes come from, thanks to the elephantine memory of the Internet it’s often possible to trace memes back to the source. We can name Wasik as the inventor of the flashmob in a way we will never be able to name the man who first asked why the chicken crossed the road. That makes even the silliest meme potentially useful as a way of understanding the structures and behaviors of digital social networks.

Indeed, they already have their archivists. The website Know Your Meme started out as a spoofy online video show but is turning into something of a scholarly resource. It documents a whole range of viral phenomena, tracing them to their origins; following the spin-offs and sub-memes, and charting—through Google Insights analysis—the arc of popularity over time. Here is where you go to find out who Star Wars Kid was and what is up with this flying cat with a pop-tart instead of a body.

Don Caldwell of Know Your Meme doesn’t entirely laugh off the suggestion that what the site is doing resembles Alan Lomax’s fieldwork recording folk music in the middle of the past century. “I did my undergraduate degree in anthropology. I see value in documenting culture in this way, trying to understand how it works and how it spreads. What makes some ideas spread more than others?

“With the Internet, we can document and witness ideas spreading at rates that we never saw before, for many more people—and you can just watch it happen. We approach a meme as if it has its own life—and we try to explain its life history.”

In so fast-moving an environment, the life of even the strongest meme is poignantly short. Maru will still be climbing into cardboard boxes long after his autobiography has been remaindered.

When I ask Bill Wasik if any viral object has struck him as especially memorable, he says: “To me both the amazing thing and the disquieting thing about the Internet as a medium for culture, entertainment and the transmission of meaning is just how many remarkable things pass through it every day, and how few of them persist in our minds. I feel like the Internet resists the very question you’re asking. Every day I am rapt by what I see there. The next day I’ve forgotten everything.”