What Happens When People Start Buying Memes
Popular culture has always had economic value ascribed to it. Long after iconic films, movie characters and musicians have surpassed their prime, merchandise keeps them alive – locked and stored deep within the consumer consciousness. Pop culture doesn’t play by the rules, and the reason why it resonates with people is a sketchy domain transcending the understanding of commonplace purchases typified by regular ‘needs and wants’. When we buy a pin-up poster of Marilyn Monroe, or a mug with Pierce Brosnan’s face on it, we’re buying artefacts of moments, attitudes and ideas– an admission of belonging and participation within our culture.
Ingrained within the soul of popular culture is transformation, and in this highly communicative era marked by the prevalence of sharing we’re witnessing the implacable growth of a new segment of popular culture – the internet meme. Internet memes are often humorous, relatable and downright stupid, but academically speaking, a ‘meme’ is characterised by its existential characteristics as a highly shareable, imitable and remixed item that can often achieve viral prevalence. Limor Shifman, a professor in the Department of Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem defines Internet memes as satisfying three criteria:
- A group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance
- A group of digital items that were created with awareness of each other
- A group of digital items that were circulated imitated and/or transformed
Perhaps one of the ‘classics’ of the meme universe is the LolCat, a moniker for a collection of cute cat images accompanied by often grammatically incorrect phrases – or ‘lolspeak’ – that have made rounds on the world wide web. It’s a great example because it fits conveniently into Professor Shifman’s understanding of an internet meme. It possesses the shared common characteristic of cute cat images which have been imitated and transformed with different cats and new phrases.
Ridiculous as it may seem to picture the LolCat purring loud and proud alongside Harry Potter and Jennifer Lawrence as contemporary pop icons, memes are undeniably an aspect of contemporary popular culture – as icons of an age of sharing, and widespread co-creation. As much as Harry Potter loyalists will buy figurines and replica broomsticks, today’s young internet-savvy generation are becoming consumers for their very own user-generated culture packed with cutesy LolCats and ditzy doges.
THE HISTORY OF MEME – FROM 20th CENTURY MEME TO INTERNET MEME
Meme is not just an internet phenomenon, but meme in the contemporary sense differs phenomenally from meme in a 20th century sense. Furthermore, the meme that we’ve come to know is virtually unidentifiable from meme as it was first coined by Richard Dawkin’s in his 1976 bestseller ‘The Selfish Gene’, where meme was used to describe the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena through evolutionary principles.
It is likely that memes grew out of curiosity, and a human need to belong and be part of collective movements and activities. A great example of a pre-internet era meme is ‘Kilroy Was Here’, a 20th century meme popular in the 1940s born during World War II. The most agreed upon recount of its beginnings is the story of shipyard inspector James J. Kilroy who signed off his inspections with the phrase ‘Kilroy Was Here’, which soldiers found in odd places of ships. The simplicity of the phrase and the evoked curiosity likely led to the birth of this meme which became scribbled in public places often with a large nosed caricature peering over a wall.
Image credit: Lee Cannon
The diffusion and spread of Kilroy was organic, and its growth cannot be attributed to any grand meaning, social movement or political motivation. The significance of Kilroy as a precursor for the modern internet meme is the arbitrariness of its existence – meaningless, but widespread. Notable internet memes such as ‘Bad Luck Brian’ and ‘Scumbag Steve’, are humorous but arbitrary in nature – although plausible that Brian is a magnet for bad luck, there is nothing about his character that makes him explicitly so.
It was the enabling features of the internet that were a fundamental driving force behind ‘Bad Luck Brian’ and ‘Scumbag Steve’, the ubiquity and speed with which sharing is now possible allows movements such as these to gain momentum before their validity is questioned. It also immeasurably increases visibility.
“In the pre-Internet era, each individual was exposed to a very limited number of memetic manifestations – a person might have seen the Kilroy graffiti a dozen times in his or her lifetime, but probably not much more than that”, writes Professor Shifman in his book Memes In Digital Culture.
This is sharply contrasted by today’s internet age; I can see hundreds of LolCats in less than an hour, and I can easily share and create my own, therefore becoming just another driver behind the meme’s exponential growth. In effect, memes can now get the same exposure as traditional popular culture such as movies, music, television, comics and video games through a process that is entirely organic and user-generated. Amazingly, without any budgets, bureaucracy or business, the pervasiveness of internet memes has transformed them into a highly marketable slice of popular culture.
HOW WE ARE COMMODIFYING MEMES
The commodification of memes is a real thing, and people and businesses are paying money for it. Essentially, there are two models with which internet memes are being ascribed economic value – as a vehicle for ad revenue on meme-based websites, and through traditional retail and online stores as decoration on commodities such as mugs, notebooks, shirts and more.
The ad-based model certainly provokes an interesting discussion about the economic value of memes, effectively questioning the efficacy of putting a dollar sign on the societal construct of culture. In September 2007, investors acquired the meme aggregator website ‘ICanHasCheezburger’ from its founders for $2 million – it’s a big moment in the history of meme though, the first time that people have been willing to pay big bucks for the concept. As an investment property, in the long run the site should pay dividends through advertising revenue if it continues to be a destination for funny and bite-sized entertainment. But there are contentious questions to be asked.
“A Marxist rebuttal could suggest that these websites are in fact exploiting the users by stealing and hosting their memes in order to generate traffic and sell advertisements for revenue. They are crowd-sourcing their production of content to the users, who do it for free because they think they are producing culture for themselves, but in actuality, they are creating profits for the owners of these aggregation and distribution websites”, writes Carl Chen, a student of sociology at Yale University.
It’s a messy grey area that isn’t exclusive to meme culture, but is inherent in almost every business that keeps itself afloat off ad revenue. Are users being exploited by Facebook which harvests intimate details about its users to sell ads? Are users being exploited by Google in the same way? Perhaps, but maybe exploitation is the wrong word. More accurately and less sensationally, it’s a new form of exchange and a new form of currency. Users exchange their data and their creations for the privilege of using the service. In the case of internet memes, users create memes which they upload for free for the privilege of sharing them.
People simply can’t expect compensation for their creative work by selling their memes – meme culture creation and diffusion is a collaborative process, far from a competitive and economically motivated one. To put it simply, can we really sell the idea of a LolCat? We can use it as a vehicle to generate ad revenue, but can we actually sell it like we sell cars, businesses and patents?
Nope. If we appreciate the understanding of ‘selling’ as a passing of ownership for money, then the notion of selling a meme idea simply doesn’t scale – because memes belong to everybody. As a rapidly growing segment of popular culture, the most potentially disruptive aspect of memes is that nobody actually owns them. Sony owns Spiderman, J.K. Rowling owns Harry Potter, the record labels own the music industry, but nobody owns LolCats. It’s a crowd-sourced creation, seemingly plucked out of thin air.
So we can’t sell the idea of a meme, but we can certainly sell them in physical manifestations – notebooks, mugs, stationery, cards, figurines and virtually anything else. Of course, distributors are usually free to sell memes without the red tape associated with ownership rights, royalties and patents. It’s a value generator built from nothing, a marketable output without intellectual input. In other words – the economist’s dream. This is the other model of meme commodification – the accessorising of consumer products.
There are examples everywhere, many online but also many that you’ll see in brick and mortar stores like Typo, Minotaur and Pylones to name a few. The web is also teeming with online stores selling meme-accessorised versions of commodities such as LolCat t-shirts on Zazzle, mugs on CafePress and various bits of meme-clad clothing on Hot Topic.
In fact, one of the most commercialised examples of a contemporary meme is ‘Keep Calm’, a stylised phrase derived from the English propaganda poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, originally designed to raise the morale of the British public in the wake of World War II. Its simplicity, customisable nature, and stoic motivational defiance have turned it into a popular culture sensation. For this reason, it’s also highly commercialised, found extensively in online stores and also mainstream retailers like Typo and Minotaur; but its popularity has made it a subject of derision from apologists of its historical significance.
“In some ways, my bigger complaint here is how Western modernity responds to anything that becomes remotely popular. Rather than finding any way to maintain the item’s integrity or exercise some degree of self-control and moderation in its usage, modernity vigorously milks the icon until its proverbial udder is sore, dry and empty. And it does it with such utter unoriginality – such offensively stupid lack of thought – that every successive, non-witty execution becomes yet another exercise in cringe-inducing pain”, according to Sam K, author of the blog Rant List.
Above: A brief history of Keep Calm and Carry On
The commercialisation of Keep Calm has traversed so far that in 2011 it became trademarked, a rare scenario in the culture of meme. In the ensuing years the ‘Keep Calm Campaign’ arose in a bid to return the cultural icon back to the British people with the argument that its use had become so widespread and embedded within contemporary culture that commercial ownership was simply wrong. Unfortunately, the European Union Trademark Office rejected the trademark cancellation registration put forward by the group. A visit to the campaign’s website used to bear the following statement; the site is no longer live:
“Unfortunately it seems, common sense is trumped by bureaucracy and the decision is a sad sign of modern times when part of our cultural heritage can be claimed by a business man solely for commercial purposes by simply applying to trade mark it”.
It’s an example of some of the complications that arise from the commodification of meme. Moreover, intellectual property issues will always germinate when somebody tries to take ownership of things that are already the property of the societal vernacular. It wasn’t until doing my research for this piece that I was even aware of Keep Calm’s trademarked status.
For most memes however, trademarking is thankfully an unfeasible exercise. The very nature of meme lies in its variability – new cats and new phrases – and it’s extraordinarily difficult to claim ownership of something so exceedingly effervescent. For the most part, the commodification of meme is in safe hands – a cultural exercise that allows people to purchase slices of a self-generated phenomenon, a symbol of both uniqueness and belonging.
Popular culture is changing. We’re used to being consumers, but the internet meme has brought light to a new age in which people are also producers of their own entertainment. It’s an age that is crowd-sourced and collaborative and completely exciting. Importantly, it’s a wakeup call for the traditional media institutions that have built businesses out of creating and selling popular culture icons – businesses built on exclusivity, licensing, intellectual property protection and monopolisation.
But we can’t license, protect or monopolise products that belong to nobody and everybody, and therein lies the disruptive prowess of this growing internet meme culture. LolCats and Doges don’t really possess the same clout as a Harry Potter or an Elvis Presley – and I don’t think anybody is trying to pretend that they do – but they belong to us. They’re not just ours to consume, but ours to remix, share, distribute and transform. One day we’ll come together and create more than just ‘lolspeaking’ cats, and that’s exciting. Meme is just the beginning of a crowd-sourced pop culture revolution.