Friday, 9 January 2009

Lifecycle of a meme

A recent discussion on reddit prompted me to sketch out the stages of an internet meme's lifecycle.

Lest there be any confusion, I'm talking here about internet memes - LOLcats, Soviet Russia jokes and the like, not about memes in the more general sense of the word.

As far as I can see, all memes go through this lifecycle:

  1. Meme is born. Almost nobody understands it, and it's barely funny even when you do.
  2. Meme gets adopted by a specific social group. Meme now serves as a shibboleth indicating membership of the group, and encourages feelings of belonging and "insidership" whenever it's encountered. At this stage, the meme is usually either utterly baffling or hilarious, depending on whether or not you're an insider in that social group.
  3. Meme becomes mainstream - everyone is using it at every opportunity, and - its use as a shibboleth negated - it gradually gets stale from overuse. Meme is hilarious to newcomers, but increasingly sterile and boring to older users.
  4. Meme effectively dies - people using it are generally downmodded or castigated for trying for "easy" posts. Importantly, it can still be funny even at this stage if it's used particularly well... however, 99% of the uses at this point are people trying to cash in on easy karma - the kind of people who tell the same jokes for years without realising that the 17th time you hear it, it's no longer funny.
  5. Meme is effectively dead, but may experience rare and infrequent resurrection in particularly deserving cases. Generally these uses get applauded, because nobody wants to risk approbation for posting stale memes unless they're really sure this is a perfect opportunity for it - one that's literally too good to miss.

Importantly, by stage 5 the meme starts once again to be funny, because it's once again serving as a shibboleth... though this time instead of showing how advanced and up-to-date the poster is, it instead serves to indicate his membership in the "old guard" of whatever social group it's posted to - "I've been around here so long I remember when this was funny", it quietly indicates to other old-timers and well-educated newbies alike.


Matt said...

I would further add that by stage 5 it takes on a sort of "Russian Ark" Status (, in which it serves as a Shibboleth, but to a group other than its originators. For this it can be chastized in public, while serving as a bastion of individual culture to a small -- and often socially masochistic -- clutch of followers.

Michael Forrest said...

Stage 6. Meme is appropriated into advertising campaign and attached to irrititating slogan by large marketing services agency.

Anonymous said...

Stage 7. ???

Stage 8. Profit.

Leon De la Rosa said...

Hi, I'm a doctoral student in Art and visual culture education completing a dissertation on internet memes and would like to reprint part of this post (as a screen grab) in the write up. Would you be ok with that? Here's a bit about it in case it makes a difference:

Shaper said...

I neglected to get back to Leon in time to give him permission before publishing, but if anyone else would like to read his interesting PhD dissertation it's available for free download here.