my thoughts on memes, distilled

I made this comment in response to someone in the comments for this Chainsawsuit, and I wanted to mention it here for posterity. It sums up how I feel about memes, when I think too often I come across as having a scorched-earth policy for anyone who would dare to be creative in a manner I don’t find compelling. That’s incorrect but I think that’s how I sound. See if this fits better:

let me clarify a thought on memes — memes are not immediately poison. to suggest this is to say “no emoticons either, and no lowercase letters, and only correct punctuation.” ridiculous. we can’t do that.we need memes. we need these ideas to exist. we need methods of self-expression for people of every creative stripe.

my assertion is that after the first 5 or 10 iterations of a meme, the meme has to become meta to survive. then the meme is just an inside joke. inside jokes depreciate rapidly. the return on investment is pretty goddamn low. unfortunately this is where the meme really takes root and shines.

someone on twitter said that they had considered memes “the democratization of humor,” which i think is fascinating. because there’s an effort to make you think that by proliferating someone else’s joke, you yourself become as funny or clever as its originator. there is money to be made from this. empires are built on that idea! but it doesn’t hold water. the word BACON or the word SCIENCE is not humor, it does not indicate the presence of humor; but it’s been positioned as a punchline for so long, we react to it as if it’s a fully-formed joke.

put it this way: we used to all own headphones of various qualities. then apple bundled those trashy white earbuds with all music players, and audiophiles everywhere said “man, they are really horrible for music — they have terrible bass response and kids are growing up thinking that all music is supposed to be tinny and shrill.” i’m not an audiophile, but i’ll take those guys’ word for it.

memes are those white earbuds, but for comedy.

I mean, I don’t know how 4chan feels about it either; like, while they champion and deliver the most current, richest meme ores, I don’t imagine they get too excited when the meme they got sick of six months ago has finally trickled down to Snorg Tees. When the meme is new and fresh and hasn’t been run into the ground, it has currency; it has value and real comedy.

I don’t think most of us get to see the memes in that nascent, budding phase. I think we internet peons only see them when they’ve already got Doctor Who and bacon and Portal crammed into every hole.

  • horse

    The worst is when people assume that because you don't laugh, you don't get the joke, and so they explain the concept of memes (almost invariably pronounced "mey-meys") to you. Or they defend it by saying you just don't understand irony (get it?? it's funny because no one in real life likes bacon THAT MUCH but here I am saying it a lot, what a zany world)

    • horse

      hell even "internet" is a punchline now. All you have to do is use it as anything except a noun following the word "the" and you have instant laffs.

  • derp

    Believe me, us 4chonners hate this.

    • krisstraub

      i'm grateful for this insight!

    • tomoko's husbando

      US 4CHONNERS, RIGHT?

    • Isn't this just elitism, though?

      Aren't they basically saying "This joke is hilarious when me and my friends tell it, but if you uncool people tell the same joke it's lame. "

      • Ziggy Stardust

        Imagine that you share an inside joke with your friends, you all laugh because it plays on your shared experiences, your friends bring it up from time to time, but then it is forgotten and you move on.

        Now imagine, months later, seeing a gang of 14 year olds who you have never even met repeating the same joke to their friends, whooping and laughing without understanding what makes it funny or where it came from. This carries on for months throughout the entire child population and you hear that same joke everywhere you go, often butchered horribly and always used out of context. Wouldst thou not be irate?

        • I guess. I mean it DOES bug me when someone starts quoting a movie or Family Guy without understanding what those jokes were riffing on.

          It amazes me and seriously annoys me that so many people think that the line "Badges? We don't need no stink'n badges!" comes from Blazing Saddles.

          But … I'm not sure that that isn't elitism on my part. I mean, if people can enjoy that scene from Blazing Saddles, without having seen the movie it's referencing, who am I to say they shouldn't enjoy it?

          • MadTinkerer

            Could be worse. For a few years, my brothers and I thought the line came from UHF.

          • Sinistar

            Don't feel bad for being 'elitist', elitism being a bad thing is just a myth concocted by those filthy plebeians so that they can feel better about their own idiocy!

  • DuderComputer

    This is thinking way too hard about a subject like this, and it kind of veers in to "bitter old man waving his cane" territory just a little bit. Memes get dumb fast, but humor is pretty subjective. Trying to take a stance against one type of humor seems a bit silly. I may not like Larry the Cable Guy, but I don't tell people that do that their laughter is invalid, because that would make me look like an asshole.

    • ksssssssh

      all laughter is invalid embrace the greymother she is the void that your circular searches for meaning crumble in to

      • krisstraub

        so says… the crumblist

      • Excited!

        She's a void you can't avoid!

        Look, up in the gaps between knowledge! It's a void, it's a plane (of nothingness), it's…

    • krisstraub

      memes are not so fragile that thinking about them critically will obliterate them. humor is subjective, but it deserves to be discussed. if you love something, dissect it, criticize it, find out why it works and why it doesn't.

      don't tell me not to think too hard; that is the core of my whole goddamn belief system.

  • Richard

    Humor is all very well, but these things are usually driven into the ground and stripped of all their funny qualities in the end. If anything, I imagine it's more of a stance against using old content long after it's gone stale.
    After all, the last thing we want to here right now is an arrow to the knee joke.

  • Is it OK if I am annoyed that the word "Meme" has come to mean "Internet Catch Phrase", and not the much more complex and general idea that it once was?

    The word "meme" basically means *ANY* idea that is passed from person to person, even true facts. It's an entirely correct use of "meme" to say "The idea that smoking is dangerous is a meme that dates back to the 1500s, but did not spread significantly until the 1960s. "

    I see that Wikipedia handles this by having two separate articles "Meme" and "Internet Meme".

    I guess this is entirely tangential to Straub's point, so I apologize for going on about it, but it bugs me every time.

    • krisstraub

      nah, it's okay, but colloquially it means "internet catch phrase" now and i'm not going to fight that fight.

      • tumblr

        that fight has gotta get fought eventually, lines gotta get drawn in the sand someplace

        like the point of language is to convey an idea, right, but if i can't use the word meme without accidentally communicating the idea of an internet meme specifically as opposed to the idea of memes on a whole then language is kind of failing, or at least becoming increasingly unwieldy

    • Yeahhh, I hear you. For those of us who know where the word comes from and what it was supposed to illustrate, it's sad to see it get stripped of pretty much all its interesting connotations… but I guess you can't fight the progress of language.

    • Adam

      It's not like 'meme' has a thousand years of history behind it. It's a word Richard Dawkins made up to get across an idea. It's been taken and changed by the culture to which he gave it. It happens. Prior to the 1940s, the phrase 'it bugs me' would have just made people wonder why this misuse of a word causes aphids to assault you.

  • Also, interesting that you mention "Scorched Earth", because that's how I feel about Internet memes.

    I feel like, much more than any previous form of pop culture, Internet memes over-expose a particular comedy concept so hard that that comedy ground won't be fertile for years.

    For instance, owls are intrinsically funny-looking animals. There is a lot of comedy to be extracted from owls. But now, any visual that includes an owl looking into the camera will be interpreted as a lame, out-of-date reference to the O RLY owl. How long will we have to wait until that once-bountiful comedy ground is fertile again?

    • Derfsburg

      Hmm…that's interesting. Perhaps the humor pollution will cause us to innovate. Sounds like a case study.

      Kriiiiiiis. Make socio-anthro babble at it.

      • I like the concept of "Humor Pollution".

        We need a "Humor Superfund" or a "Humor EPA" to help remove the humor-byproducts left behind by dieing memes.

        • Steengo Vasquez

          It already exists. It's called Reddit and it's the retirement home for insipid memes and pubescent non-sequiters, and the morons that embrace them.

  • Steengo Vasquez

    TIL le Scumbag Straub doesn't like memes; is anti-meme.

    FFFFFUUUUUUUU Straub, I am disappoint – me no gusta. DAE dislike Kris now?

    • Matt

      On every single anti-meme post, many unoriginal people will respond with a deluge of memes. This has happened on literally every anti-meme post I can think of.

      • Steengo Vasquez

        cool story bro

        • MrGuy

          Dilemma: I am unsure if this man is serious, but stating that fact will lower me to his level.

          I will settle for calling him an idiot.

  • halfinchspeaker

    I always appreciate when you post things like this. It is interesting that we exist in a culture where we are asked to defend why we like something, but allow "it sucks" to be an appropriate reason to dislike things. Because of this I've always admired how you want to dissect why you don't like something.

  • Sus

    Haters be hatin'
    *trollface*

    (See, that's funny 'cause it's meta. Also, bacon.)

  • Hater

    I never meta meme I didn't trollface

  • I just had a thought.

    Maybe what REALLY bugs us old people (Where "old" means > 25) is that with the internet there's no longer a strict demarcation between professional humorists, and amateur ones.

    Generic catchphrases are a very amateur form of comedy, but in the olden days, the only amateur comedians you ever met were personal friends and coworkers. When you were having lunch with your buddies, one of you would quote a funny movie, and the rest of you would laugh. But, when you sat down to read a comic strip, or watch a movie, you didn't see any of that amateur stuff.

    Nowadays we're exposed to a MASSIVE amount of amateur stuff from complete strangers, and to those of us in our 30s or older, this still feels a little weird. We still feel like if you're PUBLISHING something, you should at least TRY to be professional. And for a humorist, trying to be professional involves not relying on catchphrases.

    My father, who is a professional photographer often expresses irritation with stuff he sees on photography blogs and forums, and I'll bet that those feelings come from that same place. It's not because he's never taken a photograph of his cat and then applied a stupid filter to it, of course he has. It's because people who weren't born with Internet access aren't used to seeing amateur work proudly displayed like that.

    As a final example, think of MST3k. That show only works because there was an intuitive expectation of quality in a published work. You don't even think about it, you just EXPECT that a published movie will be of a certain quality level, and when it isn't, it's totally fair game to mock it as a failure. That's the world that us >30 year-olds grew up in.

    • And part of this is that this proto-humourist phase shouldn't probably be discouraged. Isn't that what a majority of webcomic creators do – find their voice and their style very publicly, instead of honing it in private?

  • mcgorgomagan

    For the record, the white earbuds are pretty good for their class. They're the Ford Focus of earbuds.

  • Budda Boom

    I know it's a blanket thought and it's fairly unhealthy in a way, but I just can't get over the thought that memes/meme comics are creative… poison. Why learn to draw? Why get into comics? Why even start to begin to think about maybe learning how to tell a tale or draw or anything?
    It's so basic and crude and easy and simple that anyone can do it. Sure, that's a great thing. However, there's no real motivation to move beyond this beginning step, y'know?
    Again I know I'm generalising but damn the fact that maybe just two or three people with true excellent potential could never bother realising it because of how easy it is to slap together a meme-comic and get it out to the masses.

    • vigo

      I see memes as more of a modern knock knock joke.

      knock knock
      who's there?
      doctor.
      doctor who?
      bacon portals.

    • Ok, but allow me to play Devil's advocate for a second …

      Is it required for everyone one to try their best to become the best humorist they can? Perhaps it's OK for someone to just go through the motions without ever actually creating anything funny?

      I would be super pissed off if a guitar player told me that I shouldn't play Guitar Hero et al because it's "creative poison". I don't WANT to learn to play a real guitar. I'm honestly not interested at all. But it's still fun to go through the motions.

      Along those lines, maybe it's OK if some people don't want to learn how to properly tell a joke.

      • TableAbraser

        Did you just compare playing Guitar Hero as an actual attempt of playing guitar? Holy shit, you're seriously going to dry yourself up over what is literally a scarlet letter towards people who have an unhealthy obsession over cheap, out of place gags?

        • uh, No, no I didn't. Not at all.

          And don't get me wrong. I can't stand mindlessly repeated catchphrases and memes.

          My point was sometimes it can be fun to go through the motions of doing a thing, without actually learning how to do that thing.

          Perhaps it's not fair to say that everyone who wants interact on the internet has to learn how to think up a joke and then tell it properly.
          If they're not TRYING to be joke-writers, how can we say they've failed at being a joke-writer?

          (The guitar-hero analogy was that some people say that GH players are failures because they haven't really learned how to play a guitar. But that's silly. They weren't even trying, so how could they have failed?)

  • Jakob

    meme (noun) – title of internet culture ritual in which people would deem incomprehensible combinations of concepts as entertaining. not to be confused with "actual humor". see also: bacon

  • inside jokes are fun because they are shared with a small group. however, we as a society via the internet have essentially ruined the in joke, when it comes to online communities. The fun of a reference is that you are recalling something that is a point of contact between two friends. When it attempts to be more than that, it fails on its own lack of merits.

    The reason memes succeed and fail is because un-clever people see it and go "hey! I know that. ha ha" and clever people see it and go "Hey, I know that! Why are they using that joke, everyone knows it already!"

    Recognition has passed from being a positive thing to a negative thing. It's worth noting that it has almost always been the case that the ceaseless repetition of a joke has never IMPROVED the reception of a joke except when done in a way that is meta, and even then it's playing on the absurdity of the repetition, not the joke.

    The final thought I have is that Memes are lazy. They represent a form that is limiting but at the same time instructive. Any idiot asshole can do one when they use a form like rage comics, though they are usually terrible. What is upsetting is when something genuinely clever is achieved using those forms, and you know for a certain that the joke would be BETTER if it weren't trapped by those form. (What is most upsetting is when a poor meme is viewed with more respect than a legit original piece of humor)

    The amount of people who respond to discussion of meme with memes is proof positive of how lazy, unoriginal, and unfunny memes are especially in the wrong (mass) hands.

  • Matt

    I think an integral part of humor is the unexpected. It's not necessary to go as far as surrealism, but I feel like predictability is bad for good humor.* A joke you could have made yourself is less funny. I got sick of reddit when I could predict the top comment about 70% of the time. It just isn't funny to read the exact joke or reference you know people will instinctively go to. Memes are an even worse form of this, because it's *rigidly* formulaic. You'll get one or two good "meta" jokes like Kris mentioned, but overall most of them are pretty much the exact same joke over and over. At that point, why bother?

    Also, I think some of the complete overuse of memes is due to unfamiliarity. Plenty of people might chuckle at the first time they see a meme, not knowing it's just the same old joke repeatedly. By the 50th time, you're sick of it. However, 40 of those people may have just seen that meme for the first time, and thought it was hilarious. I don't think it's necessarily an intelligence thing (although I think most memes shoot for a bar that's almost touching the ground), more of a novelty effect. It's cheap laughs. The problem comes from how much easier it is to spread that meme rather than contribute original content.

    *There's the whole "dad humor" and lame puns that intentionally uses the expected, but that's somewhat different IMO.

  • This might be a good topic for a Humor Authority podcast. 🙂

  • o0o

    yeah, i'm not a big fan of repetitive in-jokes, only so much humor tha- *cough*

  • I can definitely appreciate that viewpoint. But here's another way of looking at them. Memes are a bit like a rigid poetic form. Like a haiku, or a villanelle or a sonnet. It's an agreed-upon structure for formulating a poem. The form is there to add a creative restriction, which often produces novel content. A meme can be seen in a similar way. You're given a format to follow and the challenge is to find a way to make a NEW joke using this old format.

  • Haha! Just now on Wikipedias "Did You Know" ticker was the "Cute cat theory of digital activism", which argues that internet memes are actually vital to the well being of our democracy.

    (And that the Chinese government is able to maintain power by providing state-sponsered ways of distributing internet memes. )

    • Jor-El

      Pictures of cats are the new opiate for the masses.

  • Anon

    Yeah, guy. You're pretty much right. 4chan starts disowning things by the time Reddit gets their hands on them.

  • anon

    Kris is just mad nobodies made a chainsawsuit meme yet.

  • While we are critically discussing humor and forms, I want to point out how I find it interesting that internet comic strips maintain the old forms of newspapers — generally, three panel boxes.

    I think the reason is that the form is a signal to the audience of what to expect. It's like starting a fairy tale with "once upon a time…" One day, however, (probably soon even) the audience will not view the three boxes as the *proper form* for comics because the audience will not have ever read newspapers and funny pages while growing up.

    P.S. This is my first post on your site, but I am a long time reader and fan of your many works; you're a creative and humorous guy.

    • kmking22

      Three panel comics aren't done simply for the sake of tradition. It's not a matter of "proper form". The reasoning behind three panel comics is much more pragmatic. It's because it's the optimal amount to tell a story. You have a beginning, a middle, and an end (the punchline).

      When I make comics I can usually compress my idea down into three panels. Compressing it any further, for me at least, would be nearly impossible. With three panels I have enough room to tell my joke without belaboring the point (which I find really easy to do so I'm glad for my self-imposed three panel limit).

      The other reason is obviously economy. Like I said…it's the bare minimum. You could make a five-panel comic, or a ten-panel, or whatever you want, but then you have to fill in all those panels. That's a lot of extra work. Most people will always search for the path of least resistance, and if you can tell a joke that's just as funny in three panels as it is in five panels then why bother with five?

      So now you're probably saying "well…why bother with three? Why not just do one like the Far Side?" Well..you could…but one panel comics are usually sight gags. There's a little narrative to explain what you're seeing, but overall the image is usually the joke. With most comics, the ones that tell more of a story instead of simply presenting a humorous situation, three panels in the smallest number you can get away with.

      So I don't really see the three-panel comic as a newspaper convention, it's a human convention. It's just a format that makes sense. I truly believe that as long as there are comics it will be the dominant format.

      • Excellent points. Brevity is the soul of wit after all, and three panels are the minimum for beginning, middle, punchline. This hadn't occurred to me.

        On the other hand, the three panel strip is a classic format for comic strips signalling to the audience what to expect. This is so whether the form has arisen because it's the simply indeed the best format, a historical accident of the newspaper industry, or a mix of both. You have made me realize that perhaps the form will far outlast newspapers.

  • tumblr

    or the fact that the "white arial bold on top of a stupid picture" format of joke is called a meme but it's the format that is the meme and man i think i need to lie down after thinking about this

    • I wholeheartedly disagree. It is not the case that one word ever refers to one concept. We've managed to communicate quite well despite this. For those interested, I have already written about this phenomenon of language to a limited degree in my latest blog post. (It really requires images to explain fully). I will just say that "[l]anguages are almost infinite in their capacity."

      If you can't use words to communicate the right ideas, language isn't failing you, you're failing language.

      • I find it tastefully wry that your point about language being perfectly clear requires images to explain.

  • tradertimm

    While I find some internet memes humorous, I too suffer from 'humor fatigue' when I see them repeated over and over. Its all about keeping it fresh, no? Seriously, if I have to live to my golden years where CATS + BOLD WHITE TEXT is still considered the height of online humor…. I'd have to euthanize myself just to get along.

    Respect to the past, but keep on moving forward, you know?

  • Prof

    Nothing funny to say here–I just thought this was a particularly well-put (and well-clarified) addendum to the original. Good post. Thanks.

  • marlar

    I didn't read all of the comments, but I assume someone has made this point hopefully – for us to stay on top of all top of all the budding memes on the internet would be impossible. There is just so much content. How would one even do it? I'd liken top memes to the NYT Books bestseller list- there's good and garbage in it.

  • Lizbot

    I think the definition of a meme as an inside joke is not entirely accurate, but it's close. To me, an element essential in all memes is a certain unoriginality or irrelevence. I am curious about others' opinions in this regard. Take, for instance, the Chainsawsuit comment threads. When a new comic goes up, there inevitably seems to be someone who just posts "Hey how bout the concept of today's strip except we apply it to boigas/chainsawsuit/time ruiner?" I find those posts generally to be useless and a bit annoying, unless something about the comment provides context and breathes a different, new life into the original joke.

    I guess what I mean is, anything can be funny once and can even be carried over into other jokes, but I think it needs to be understood on its own at all times or else it's pointless. I think a joke becomes a meme when it is no longer a stand-alone funny concept. If I can look at a picture with bold white arial font plastered across it and laugh without need for a reference, I don't really take issue – and so I'm not sure I'd call it a meme. Maybe I would. Maybe there should be a phrase to distinguish these?

  • Michael A. Clem

    A meme always looks better on a female Snorgtees model–it's worth the wait!

  • emptyshell

    Considering that when Dawkins coined the phrase "meme" he did so while discussing how ideas propagate, evolve, and persist, it's ironic to see how many objections to memes are based on seeing someone else "misusing" an old meme, or encountering memes that are "played out." Also just slightly weird how "meme" has become synonymous with "joke," though that itself could be seen as the concept of meme itself evolving into something else. META.

    Anyway, i don't understand the massively negative response memes seem to accrue. I guess i can kind of understand how you as a comic writer would have professional resentment towards flash-in-the-pan humor getting undue play (hence the earbuds comparison?), but i think it isn't quite right to dismiss those who use memes as trying to grab the spotlight from the originator. I mean, most of the time the originator didn't even deserve or receive much of a spotlight to begin with; most memes were crap since the very beginning.

    I think a cleaner interpretation of memes is as sort of a humor lego set, or a level editor. Sort of like commedia dell'arte. You take ideas that most people already have a relationship with, and juxtapose the elements to attempt new humor. Yeah 95% of the time the resulting joke is crap, but how is that any different from humor in any other medium?

    Yeah i've seen the "jokes" that are nothing but nyan cat slapped onto a cake or whatever… i don't understand how that's supposed to be funny, but if you spend any time with 8 year olds you know that their style of communication is just sort of primitive and lame. And there are a lot of 8 year olds on the internet… but i dunno, I guess i just don't see how adults could get so bent out of shape over it. Lame joke? Just move on. Right? I'll keep moving until i find something that amuses me, even if it is stupid. Like one of those "now you're thinking with portals" jokes. 🙂

  • Kyle Ferrin

    Ad bird was all about Snorg Tees when I read this but then Kris said no

  • Mussum

    I agree with most of your thoughts on memes. However I would add that a meme doesn't always have to stand for a whole joke (they do fall flat in this role most of the time). For example, the Yao Ming face has come to denote certain states of mind ("bitch please" or "fuck this shit") and I think it's pretty cool how you can see him and in under 0.1 seconds internalize his meaning. It opens up possibilities for jokes, much like the piano opened new possibilities for music over the harpsichord. A piano is a lot louder than the harpsichord; and although loud notes by themselves aren't music, they *are* something you didn't have before.

    Also, I have to say that movies like The Avengers, in fact most of Hollywood's output, are the white earbuds of cinema through and through. Why would you pay money to see that? At least memes are free.

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  • ThomasG

    oh wow; I wish I would have read this post sooner