The Life Cycle of a Meme

Numa-Numa(Marie Lambert)–Rickrolling, Annoying Facebook Girl, Dramatic Chipmunk, “Charlie bit my finger,” and anything cat related. We’ve seen them all many times, often too many times bombarding your newsfeed or dashboard, lurking at the bottom of your Google image searches. Since the dawn of the Internet itself, it has functioned as a breeding ground for a wide variety of cultural fads, known colloquially as “memes,” ranging from the humorous to the bizarre.

The term “meme” was originally coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene as a term to explain the circulation of cultural ideas within a species in evolutionary context. From the same etymological roots as the word “mime” (mimeisthai, Greek for “to imitate”), a meme is the widespread propagation and sharing of a concept or phenomenon. Specifically in terms of the Internet, memes can be pictures, videos, or phrases that virally gain popularity and to varying degrees may become part of the societal

The first meme I can remember being aware of was the infamous “Numa Numa Dance” in 2004. I was in my sixth grade computer class and had just discovered this great website called “YouTube.” Gary Brolsma’s passionate lip-sync performance of Romanian pop song “Dragostea din tei” was newsworthy at the time, and has over fifty million views as of today. In the grand scheme of YouTube popularity this is no uncommon feat, for a video needs at least 250,000,000 views to make it into even the top 30 most viewed videos of all time.

From then until now, countless memes have propagated—for better or for worse—through the versatility of the Internet. Such memes are most often spread for their perceived humor, which can range from the trite to the less culturally sensitive. But the Internet community is capricious, and what makes it and what doesn’t seems to be decided arbitrarily.

The newest contender in this game of cultural commodities is the “Harlem Shake.” You’ve probably seen it, so I won’t even bother including the link. On February 2nd, a video of five Australian teenagers doing an odd but now iconic dance was posted to YouTube. A month and almost twenty million views later, you would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t either seen the video or a bad parody of it. In some ways, the video is the perfect recipe for a successful, reproducible meme:

  1. It’s short—under a minute—and easy to watch and less of a hassle to film.
  2. It begins with just enough mystery to keep people watching, fueled by the music’s energetic anticipation of the impending bass drop, followed by… who knows?
  3. The spontaneity of the second half of the video allows for creativity and personalization, hence the numerous imitation videos by everyone from the elderly to Egyptian protestors.

harlem_shake2However, what happens when the Harlem Shake we know isn’t the real Harlem Shake? The original Harlem Shake originated from Harlem resident “Al B” in the 80’s, and has since then become a hallmark of New York hip-hop. Burton Peretti, history professor and author of Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music, stated in TIME that the video is a clear example of appropriation of African-American culture.

Peretti notes that having YouTube as the platform for appropriation provides an interesting layer of complexity that wasn’t possible in the past, whether the appropriation in question was respectful emulation (as with many jazz performers), or of selective borrowing for monetary gain (a common charge leveled against performers like Elvis Presley, who brought R&B to many mainstream audiences).

Another layer added by YouTube is provided by commenters, many who respond to this reaction video with a big “so what”—a response that Peretti says indicates an interesting trend, even as it fails to acknowledge what the people in the video are actually saying about appropriation. If all culture can be shared all around the world, what does it mean to appropriate something?

“Clearly they’re right that it’s not the original, but the [commenters] responding to the video have a very different reading of culture. It’s a controversy we’ll keep having, about ownership of culture, which is very hard in the YouTube era.”

It seems clear that the creators of this new Harlem Shake were not aware of the societal ramifications of the video they posted. Should they have been? In a world where content and culture can be shared at the click of a button, what kind of responsibilities do we have to the culture we promote and create?