Let’s Talk About Meme


All of meme. Meme, myself and I. Auntie Meme. Do, re, meme, fa, so, la, ti do. I meme of Jeannie.

I could go on. And on. For hours.

I won’t.

One of the more interesting entertainments to arise from the spread of social media is the propagation of memes, perhaps more commonly known as hashtag games, in which someone suggests a theme or topic on Twitter upon which people spin sometimes endless variations, spreading far beyond the circle of the person who began it.  ‘Meme” itself is not a new-fangled internet word, although it has entered the popular lexicon only recently; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary dates its coinage to only 1976. I rather like the definition given by Dictionary.com, which mixes both culture and science: “a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.”

Last week I wrote about the collaborative nature of Twitter, suggesting that we were collectively writing a script of modern life. It is surely an absurdist script, with characters who come and go without warning, constant footnotes to the text (links), and we choose what portion of the dialogue we wish to see or engage with (by following or blocking). Well if the totality of Twitter is the ultimate “devised work,” then memes are its laugh lines.

Memes allow everyone to be their own Groucho, their own Stephen Wright, or even their own Oscar Wilde, if they aspire to be truly great. They can even be their own Milton Berle (for you young ‘uns, an early TV comic often accused of pilfering jokes), since in the elaborate Venn diagram of Twitter, your followers may not have a significant intersection with meme aficionados, and you can claim ownership of good lines with relative impunity.

Just as I enjoy my role in the multi-faceted online play that is Twitter, I adore the idea that Twitter gives voice to closet Neil Simons everywhere. No sooner do we see an appealing hashtag than we throw ourselves into the writer’s room of almost any sitcom you can name, even the fictional writers room of 30 Rock, itself dreamed up and punched up in a real-world writers room, like some Russian nesting doll. We work to one-up each other. We can all be the class clown, except there is no one to silence us except our own self-imposed censor or waning creativity. Quite remarkably, those that play seem to offer only positive reinforcement, namely the prized “re-tweet”, the greatest honor is when that retweet comes from a great comic mind like meme master Michael McKean (of Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind fame). Our bad jokes are buried and forgotten, but our good ones live on in the timelines of others.

I like the idea of memes as passing on our genes, since our desire when we engage in this word play is to insure the propagation of the idea, so that its comic DNA is passed from reader to reader. The bravest among us even try to be patient zero, proffering the idea, the appropriate hashtag and a few choice examples to get things rolling. In the past few weeks, I undertook to start two memes, the mildly successful #theatreinhell, which sought ideas for the worst possible theatrical offerings with which one might be punished for eternity, and #broadwayhurricane, puns on plays and musicals to accompany the arrival of storm Irene, which took off like a shot and was zinging around the internet more than 24 hours after I started it.

Yes, I take some small pride in “going viral,” even if most of the participants had no idea who established the game. I was the progenitor of laughter for some people, even long after the idea had gone beyond my active participation. In each case, the jokes were read alone, but everyone who saw them or contributed to them were united as an audience, making rapid connections in ways that only the internet can.

I’m not suggesting that memes have anywhere near the importance of, say, the manner in which news travels instantly and internationally via social media these days. As I said earlier, these are merely our one-liners, our word-play, our absurdist thoughts expressed and disseminated digitally, scattered across a much larger script of our interests and obsessions. There is something Darwinian in the way the best succeed as others fall on deaf ears (or perhaps blind eye is the more apt metaphor), but in the gentlest sense.

Is it utter frivolity? Perhaps. But the creative minds of the Reduced Shakespeare Company (@reduced) turned to Twitter last week to “crowdsource” a joke for their newest opus (I endeavored to help, rather obsessively). Perhaps since the internet makes it impossible for shows to go out of town in order to be out of critical scrutiny, the new alternative might instead be to test ideas via social media, in plain sight. Yes, it may spoil the joke for a handful, and risk having some stolen by the Uncle Milties who troll our timelines, but how wonderful to invite collaborators we don’t even know into the creation of work we hope they might ultimately attend and enjoy.

As the arts look for ways to engage their audiences, they rarely use humor. Even when we promote comic work, we tend to take ourselves too seriously, yet memes prove how humor can spread. It’s something we would all do well to take notice of, and perhaps begin to employ. Tweet humor, and the world laughs with you, and becomes your friend or follower. Tweet dully, and you tweet alone.

  • August 29, 2011