Meme genies and a meeting of minds

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston usually plays host to the world’s leading scientists, Nobel laureates and technological pioneers. But at the weekend it was overrun by more than 500 self-professed “internet geeks”.

They were attending ROFLCon, a web symposium which attempted to answer conundrums such as why so many people like watching animated hamsters dance, and what is so funny about photographs of cats with misspelt captions.

Described as a conference of “internet microcelebrities”, it offered an insight into those people who have found a sort of fame—and in some cases, a great fortune—by thinking up the most popular gags, jokes and fads on the internet.

These phenomena—known as internet memes—are spread from one person to another in a similar way to viral emails. Even web surfers who do not know what a meme is may have unwittingly acted memetically by passing on a video of a sneezing panda to their friends, for example.

Not all internet memes are simple, however.
Some can become highly complex and surreal. One recent craze involved “rickrolling”, the practice of tricking people into watching a video of 1980s pop singer Rick Astley.

As strange as they may seem to non-webbies, the reaction that a meme creator can get is remarkable, as Randall Munroe, the creator of xkcd.com, a popular stick-figure comic, discovered.

Standing in the foyer of an MIT lecture theatre, waiting to enter a discussion about how to survive internet fame, he was approached by two girls who held out their clenched hands towards him. “Excuse me,” they said. “Can you sign our friendship?”

Bamboozled, Munroe signed his autograph on their skin. Later, he was asked what the weirdest request ever made of him was. “Well, there were these two girls earlier ...”, he said, and you could hear a joyful squeal from the back of the audience.

But groupies are not the only perk for those who attain microcelebrity. Matt Harding, a 31-year-old video game developer from Seattle, took a career break to go travelling and filmed himself dancing badly in the exotic locations he visited. After his video was posted on YouTube, it turned into a web phenomenon and has now been watched by 10-million people. He has since been sponsored by a chewing gum firm to undertake a second trip, and is in the process of making his third video. He says the appeal of the biggest memes is simple, basic humour.

“What I do is not mainstream, but it’s more tailored to the mainstream because it isn’t ironic,” said Harding. “It’s the persona of a man smiling and dancing around the world—there’s not much more to it than that.”

For some of the participants, internet fame has led to a complete change of life. Ben Huh, a journalism graduate, is now CEO of I Can Has Cheezburger, the cat-captioning phenomenon that is so successful it employs an office full of people in the Seattle area.

Others have seen success on a smaller scale. Christian Lander started his blog, stuffwhitepeoplelike.com, in January and has already given up his day job to write a book and cash in on the enormous success of his site.

Sometimes being famous on the internet has its downsides. Among those at ROFLCon was 47-year-old Jay Maynard, better known on the internet as “Tron guy” owing to his simple website showing pictures of himself in a home-made replica costume from the 1982 science fiction film Tron.

Being part of a meme has brought him fame and notoriety, he said. “I will never again be truly anonymous—there will be pictures of me in this costume somewhere on the net, as long as there is a net. That’s something I’ve come to accept.”

It is not only would-be comedians and internet celebrities who are aware of the power of memes, though. Since these crazes can draw millions of internet users, advertisers and marketers are increasingly desperate to understand what makes a meme successful so that they can replicate it for profit. Stories of advertising agencies ripping off memes were rife among the ROFLCon crowds.

Those at ROFLCon were happy to be in a place where everyone got the joke about internet microcelebrity; when the proceedings had finished, most of these web stars were returning to ordinary lives rather than being hounded by the paparazzi. For many, that was part of the appeal—doing things on the web for fun allowed them to be part of pop culture and stay outside it at the same time.

“Internet fame is great, because we have a lot more control over what we do,” said Harding. “Our shows can’t get cancelled and our movies can’t bomb.”

How LOLcats took over the web

LOLcats

A heady mixture of cute cat pictures, anthropomorphised with badly spelled captions written in an innocent kitten-like tone, which has spawned a sub-language, LOLspk. The most popular website, I Can Has Cheezburger, now gets more than two-million hits a day.

Dancing hamsters

One of the earliest memes to hit the web, featuring crude animated hamsters dancing to an irritating yet catchy dance music soundtrack.

Cats that look like Hitler

Every cat has distinctive markings, but a surprising number seem to have a small black moustache reminiscent of the Nazi dictator. This website is where images of such beloved pets are shared.

Sneezing panda

A 20-second webclip which took offices around the world by storm last year. It is impossible not to be charmed when a baby panda sneezes—taking its mother by surprise.

I Kiss You

Mahir Cagri, a Turkish photographer, became a phenomenon after his over-enthusiastic homepage—featuring the slogan “I Kiss You!!!!!”—was seen around the world. Said by some to be the template for Borat, though Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic character was invented several years earlier.

Chuck Norris

Bizarre one-liners describing the toughness of the martial arts film star. “When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down,” reads one.

Laughing babies

Thousands of family videos detail the cacophanous laughter of easily amused infants. It’s impossible to remain stony-faced while watching their infectious giggles, and these clips now pepper YouTube.

Million Dollar Homepage

British student Alex Tew came up with an ingenious plan to sell every pixel on his website for $1. Drawn by the novelty and hope of publicity, advertisers flocked to the scheme and made him rich.

Star Wars kid

A video of a young Canadian boy pretending to battle the dark side with a stick instead of a lightsabre. It is said to be the most popular viral video of all time, but the reluctant star sued his schoolmates for the harassment he endured as a result.

Stuff White People Like

A sizzling parody of middle-class liberal values, detailing the cliches of modern life. Nothing is too mundane for the author’s witty deconstruction: popular entries include expensive sandwiches and dinner parties - guardian.co.uk Â

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