The term “meme” was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to describe a concept that self-replicates, mutates, and changes across culture, not unlike a gene. The internet, a cultural petri dish of sorts, is rife with memes. Mike Rugnetta of the website knowyourmeme.com talks about what constitutes a meme and how the internet is the ideal place for them to grow.
BOB GARFIELD: The term “meme” was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to describe a concept that self-replicates and mutates across culture, not unlike a gene. The Internet, a cultural Petri dish, if ever there was one, is rife with memes. And they can be so multitudinous as to be impossible to keep track of. Fortunately, the website knowyourmeme.com has you covered. The site, which began in December, 2008, includes a fan-supplemented meme database, which has become a go-to destination for the latest on emergent Internet culture. Mike Rugnetta is a meme researcher for knowyourmeme. Mike, welcome to the show.
MIKE RUGNETTA: Thanks for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, we know what viral means. Susan Boyle singing opera, while unsightly, went viral.
MIKE RUGNETTA: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Cute kittens go viral. But a meme is more than just viral. Can you explain, using the example of Antoine Dodson, the difference between popularity and memeness?
MIKE RUGNETTA: The big difference between something that’s been deemed viral and something that’s been deemed memetic is that with a memetic piece of media you see lots of different iterations of media that reference each other. And I think Antoine Dodson is a great example that’s kind of the current go-to. Antoine Dodson is a, a gentleman who was interviewed by a, a local news station after there was a break-in, in, I believe it was his sister’s apartment. A man attempted to assault his sister. And the amount of personality that he exhibited during his interview with the local news just exploded. And as soon as the clip found its way onto YouTube, the Internet latched onto it.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's listen to the original clip, and then we'll see what happened to it.
ANTOINE DODSON: We have a rapist in Lincoln Park. He’s climbin’ in your windows, he snatches your people up trying to rape ‘em, so you all need to hide your kids, hide your wife and hide your husband, because they're rapin’ anybody out here. You don't have to come and confess that you did it. We're lookin’ for you. We, we gonna find you. I'm lettin’ you know now. So you can run and tell that - homeboy.
MIKE RUGNETTA: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Now, we're discussing something [LAUGHS] serious. We're talking about this, you know, sexual assault. And yet, somehow this guy’s transcendent charm captured the imagination of more than a million people. That clip was sent everywhere, but that did not end the story.
MIKE RUGNETTA: So there’s a, a group of gentlemen and ladies here in Brooklyn, Auto-Tune the News, and they take popular news bits from mainstream broadcasts. They sequence some music behind it and they use a piece of software called Auto-Tune, a tool to correct pitches. But when you sort of dial it up to the extreme, you can make people who are speaking sound like they're singing. Antoine’s delivery here is just perfect for that kind of processing. Actually, listening to it now, I think this is the first time I've heard the un-Auto-Tuned clip in a while, and it’s impossible to hear it and not hear the music that’s sort of inherent in his delivery.
ANTOINE DODSON [“AUTO-TUNED”]: He’s climbing in your window. He’s snatchin’ your people up, tryin’ to rape ‘em. So you all need to hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your kids, hide your wife, hide your kids, hide your wife, and hide your husband because they're rapin’ anybody out here. You don't have to come and confess. We're lookin’ for you. We’re gonna find you. We’re gonna find you. So you can run and tell that, run and tell that, run and tell that, homeboy, home, home, homeboy. We got your t-shirt…
[SOUND TRAILS OFF]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] That comes out. And then what happened?
MIKE RUGNETTA: So at the end of the video, the Gregory Brothers present a challenge to their audience to produce their own covers. And so, what follows is this explosion of amazing user-generated culture, all based on the chords and melody that the Gregory Brothers made from Antoine’s original delivery.
BOB GARFIELD: A montage of which sounds something like this:
[“BED INTRUDER”/ CLIP 1]: He’s climbin’ in your windows, he’s snatchin’ your people up. He’s trying to rape you, so you all need to hide your kids. Hide your wife. Hide your kids. Hide your wife. Hide your kids. Hide your wife. And hide your husband, 'cause they're raping everyone out there!...
[“BED INTRUDER”/ CLIP 2]: You don’t have to come and confess. We're lookin’ for you. We’re gonna find you. We're gonna find you. So you can run and tell that, run and tell that, run and tell that, homeboy, homeboy…
[“BED INTRUDER”/ CLIP 3]:
[MARCHING BAND/UP AND UNDER]
MIKE RUGNETTA: I've never heard this one. This is incredible.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] It’s the North Carolina A&T Marching Band! [LAUGHS]
MIKE RUGNETTA: No way! Wow, that’s awesome!
[MARCHING BAND PLAYING]
BOB GARFIELD: Mike, let's just put aside for a moment that this all began with an attempt, at least, at an extremely serious crime. Why do we as a culture keep fiddling around with something that amuses us? Have we as a society nothing better to do?
MIKE RUGNETTA: [LAUGHS] I think the answer to the question is not necessarily that we have nothing better to do. It’s just that it is really exciting that we have now the tools and the know-how to do these things. The Internet has given us this huge amount of media and this great community and these really amazing tools to produce, you know, what amounts to a form of self-expression in a way that we have never been able to before in media history. And that is exciting. So, of course, people are going to engage.
BOB GARFIELD: As I dig in to knowyourmeme, it occurs to me that most of these things begin as found objects, something that is discovered somewhere in the popular culture or in the news that just captures people’s imagination. Then they just let loose.
MIKE RUGNETTA: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BOB GARFIELD: Has anyone succeeded in contriving a meme, just creating something to see if it can take off?
MIKE RUGNETTA: The community of meme-makers are really, really good at sniffing out a rat, though something that comes right to mind is the recent Old Spice ad campaign.
MAN: Hello, ladies. Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back at your man. Now back to me. Sadly, he isn't me.
MIKE RUGNETTA: That was designed from the bottom up to be something that people would be really excited to share, a form that would be able to respond with a lot of agility to Internet users. And I think that in that case they did a great job of setting out to make a thing that people would want to mutate and replicate and share, and they just - they nailed it.
BOB GARFIELD: They did [LAUGHS] to the extent that in the midterm elections a Connecticut politician used the Old Spice commercial as the template for his campaign ad.
JERRY LABRIOLA: Hello, Connecticut. Look at Rosa DeLauro. Now back to me. Now Rosa. Back to me. She isn't me, but if she stopped spending all our money and started cutting taxes, she could think like me.
BOB GARFIELD: Look, back in 2004 I happened to be watching at 1:30 in the morning when Howard Dean gave that weird little scream after getting slaughtered -
MIKE RUGNETTA: [LAUGHS] Right.
BOB GARFIELD: - in the Iowa caucuses, and I said to myself, we're going to be seeing a lot of that.
MIKE RUGNETTA: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: And so, I pre-identified one meme.
MIKE RUGNETTA: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: How good are you at scanning the popular culture to know what is going to be featured prominently on your site pretty soon?
MIKE RUGNETTA: You know, it’s a really fickle science. Something has to hit in every right way, at every step in order to become super popular. And so, there are things that we will sometimes see and we'll keep an eye on them and think, okay, so this has the potential of being really popular. When the Balloon Boy thing started we were kind of like, all right, so this has all the elements that this is going to explode. And sure enough it did, but then it died down really quickly. So the slope on that in both directions was really fast. Identifying stuff that’s gonna have a real longevity is a lot more complicated because Antoine Dodson - that picked up so fast that we didn't even have the opportunity to predict its popularity. The day that we see the video get uploaded, it’s like, oh, yeah, that is really entertaining - this is probably going to be something. And then the next day there are thousands of remixes of it on YouTube. We're always trying to follow the trail of all of the individual pieces of media, but then also how culture is evolving in general.
BOB GARFIELD: Mike Rugnetta is a meme researcher for knowyourmeme. Mike, thank you very much.
MIKE RUGNETTA: Thanks for having me, Bob.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]