Three different people recommended this meme to me in a span of a week. Does it say something about me? About them? About us?
Does the spread of memes or popular Internet content matter? Attendees at this weekend's ROFL Conference, held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believe so. The annual ROFLCon was established in 2008 with the goal of analyzing and discussing "what makes memes work, why they work, and where its all going." This year's keynote speakers were Harvard Law professor and author of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It Jonathan Zittrain and Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and author of Too Big to Know David Weinberger.
I have my own questions about Internet viral content and its implications. First, the transmission of memes. It can start anywhere: chain emails sent from a work friend, a Facebook Wall post, someone whips out an iPhone at your brunch table and passes it around, it's referenced in your favorite meta sitcom (e.g. sneezing panda on 30 Rock) or commercial. When it's transmitted person to person, it's usually prefaced with "I saw this and thought of you." Shared from one person to another across the Web, these communications are meaningful. Aren’t they?
I don't know for sure. But I do know that although I've only received two of the same gifts once (Polly Pocket light up castle, 1993), I frequently receive the same Internet links, photos, and video, all sent by different people at different times. For example, in the past six months or so:
Bookstore Rap video (Parody of a Kanye West/Jay-Z song)
The Joy of Books video (an incredible stop motion short featuring Toronto's Type Bookstore)
The 14 Funniest Examples of the Gersberms Meme
LibraryThing's Legacy Libraries
Even in the 1870s, humans were obsessed with ridiculous photos of cats
When I receive the same meme, sent by different people, in a span of week, does that say anything about me? About them? About what they think of me? I'm reminded of late 19th century sociology Charles Cooley and his concept of the looking glass self. We are who we think others think we are. Sharing funny videos or interesting articles could be gestures to connect, to assess and affirm familiarity. They might be a way to symbolize shared interest, a way of saying, "I know who you are, we are alike, we feel the same feeling in this moment and it means something." On the other hand, by intepreting these symbolic interactions as meaningful, I reduce a relationship or an identity to mere tags #libraries, #cats, #sandwiches. Treating the viral as personal in a way that obscures what it really means to communicate. Or maybe I'm taking our time-wasters too seriously.
For a brief history of internet memes, check out this timeline, knowyourmeme.com, or browse the library's collection on the social aspects of the Internet.