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Internet Memes

Internet memes are the new American mind game. Punchy. Viral. Irresistible. We’ll track the zeitgeist in memes.

Memes like this "LOLCat" are ubiquitous on the internet. (Wikipedia)

Memes like this "LOLCat" are ubiquitous on the internet. (Wikipedia)

We all know genetics, genes, and how they carry DNA.  Now think “memes” – nifty packets of information, and how they carry ideas.  A meme can be words, music, an image.  Winston Churchill’s “V” for victory.  Mona Lisa’s smile.  Richard Dawkins coined the term.  The Internet gave it wings.  And the biggest stage in history.

Memes are all over the net now.  Some funny.  Some hard.  Cats with cute sayings.  Viral videos.  Hillary Clinton looking boss.  What sitcoms were to the ‘60s, Internet memes are now.

This hour, On Point:  memes all over, and the ideas viruses shaping our culture.

-Tom Ashbrook


Christina Xu, co-founder of ROFLCon, an “internet culture conference devoted to discussing what makes memes work, why they work, and where it’s all going.”

Brad Kim, editor of knowyourmeme.com.

Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist and author of Program or Be Programmed.

From Tom’s Reading List

Washington Post “On the pair’s Tumblr site, Hillary, wearing dark sunglasses and studying her Blackberry, is surrounded by briefing papers while on the military transport plane to Libya. Diana Walker took the picture last year for Time magazine. It’s become a classic and powerful image in a week, thanks to massive exposure via social media.”

New York Times “I don’t remember how old I was when I first climbed up to the roof of my family’s home in suburban Maryland. Eleven, maybe? Twelve? But I do remember what I saw up there. It was the night of the Fourth of July, and it was turning dark enough for the fireworks.

Slate “Even if you’ve never clicked on 4chan, you’ve felt its influence— LOLcats, FAIL blog, and Rickrollingare just a few of the Internet memes that incubated there. Yet visiting 4chan—especially the site’s most-active board, /b/ —can be a little offputting. There’s the porn, the racism, the things having to do with the surprising abilities of an octopus that you see once and never forget. Some of this is designed to shock and scare away the casual visitor. Most of it is just sick.”

Photos: Famous Internet Memes

Internet Meme Sites

Texts From Hillary


First World Problems

Video: PBS Ideas Channel

This video explores the internet memes and art.

Video: Top Memes of 2011

Here’s a wrap up from knowyourmeme.com about the top mems of 2011.


“Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astly
“Nyan Cat” Video
“Friday” by Rebecca Black

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  • Roy Mac

    That is just so cool and you are just so hip.  And you used meme in a sentence when an actual English word would have communicated something beyond your need to sound cool.  Good effing luck I’ll have any interest in such a lame topic.

    • Johan Corby

      Butthurt much?

    • Tncanoeguy

       Ouch – someone throw your bike in a ditch? 

    • Roy Mac

      Both are welcome to go back to your parents’ basements now.

  • Maria

    OMG!  How cyoote!

    I iz excited for moar!

    Srsly. xo

    • Patrik

      Orly? [Insert funny owl pic]

      • Maria

        Yez rly.  And I srsly luvz owls too, Patrick ;)

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    The problem with the phrase/title “internet meme” is that it belittles the term “meme” which is/was useful for talking about the spread of all types of ideas.


    I don’t think Dawkins would disagree with your use of it in this context but then why not use it in other more serious contexts.

    Of course, some young people latched onto the “Kony” meme only to have it pushed aside with the “spooning record” meme:


    I wish someone would make a LOLRepublican video of Romney’s chameleon opinions from year to year. Oh, right, they have…

    • rbj

      memes have existed as long as language and communication has existed.

  • Nick D

    Did I just hear Tom Ashbrook say “epic fail”? Yup, its 2012. 

  • Anonymous


    William Shatner performing Rocket Man

  • Mike in PA

    Doesn’t “Anonymous” have something to do with meme generation…lulz?

  • Anonymous


    A meme of the meme creator

  • Drew You Too

    Our ability to demonstrate our boundless stupidity is apparently without limits. I’m so glad we’re focused on solutions to the problems we face and not a cat flushing the toilet or an intentionally misspelled phrase.

  • AC

    i feel a little shallow….i know all of these!!

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    When genes reproduce out of control, it’s called cancer.  What’s the equivalent term for memes?

  • Johnnodrums

    http://www.9gag.com  This is where memes grow and are shared. Can your guest comment on these cartoonish memes which display a moment in time or an emotion?

  • Ro

    How disappointing to hear you talking about Hilary Clinton as “tough and unflappable.”  Isn’t that what we expect and need from Cabinet level leaders? Would you ever say that about Colin Powell or any other male? It’s one thing to report on what the internet populace said and did, another to perpetuate the myth of the weak woman yourself, Tom Ashbrook.

  • Tncanoeguy

    Don’t know if it counts as a meme, but the “Coach T” Toyota ads during March Madness were great – very creative.  

  • AC

    there’s one of him and zeddie together now….it’s funny

  • jeff bass

    Many of these folks are the new political cartoonists!!

  • George Arnold

    No, this ain’t nothin’ like Shakespeare.

  • Drew You Too

    Gossip, thank you so much to your guest for making that connection. No Tom, it doesn’t have to be iconic, just distracting.

  • Jill

    OMG!  I’m vomiting in my mouth.  Memes are the equivalent of the cultural revolution of the Sixties?  Give me a break.  Every time I decide to look at one of these memes, I think what’s the big deal?  Total waste of time.

  • Amelia

    C-mon! That cat flushing the toilet a hundred times, causing its owner a tres pricey water bill, was AWESOME.

  • http://www.facebook.com/drpmeade Paul S Meade

    Laurie Anderson”s and William S. Burroughs’ “Language is a Virus” the original meme.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Think of how culture relates to cultivate.  A culture produces lasting value.  Most of these pictures are just momentary fun.

    By the way, that Nyan Cat noise is what makes me give the CD player a hard slap.

  • David in Boston

    I love memes, but think their significance as an interesting cultural trend is exaggerated in this conversaion. So many of these originated in rough, no-holds barred bulletin board sites from bored young males trying to out-clever one another. A visit to 4chan would most likely horrify 99.9% of typical NPR listeners…

  • Sequoia M.

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the way the term “meme” is being used here is as a sort of loose shorthand for “internet born culture.”  As others have pointed out, memes are a “cultural genes” that have always existed, the modern usage however frequently refers to a specific humor-centered subculture that is *from the internet* (internet created with no geographic center or base).

    The term also gets used to refer to images themselves, and metacaptioned images: “I made a meme on quickmeme [an image metacaptioning service]” is used to mean “I took a popular image and added a metacaption.”  In this latter meaning, the final product jpg or png image is being called a “meme.”

    As a side note, I don’t think the “most interesting man” example above is a good one, as it references two distinct memes (Most Interesting & “Accidentally” http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/i-accidentally ) and doesn’t make sense w/o a familiarity with both.

    My collection of funny ‘net photos; an OK sampling for those wanting to see more: https://gimmebar.com/loves/sequoia/collection/funny

  • JJ Wise

    The First World Problems MEME is by far my favorite. It is laughable how spoiled we are as Americans, this MEME really hits home for me. “I used all my Pandora skips…and the next song is really bad.” “I really want to eat these wings…but I am so full from all the beer.”

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Myth requires a story with a theme.  These pictures are jokes.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t make them out to be more than they are.

  • Michael

    Your topic today addresses a powerful urge to people to protest. I am reminded of the  story I heard in the 1960′s of the tradition of expressing feeling of political protest through Czech cartoon figure such as The Good Soldier Švejk ( /ˈʃveɪk/; Czech: [ˈʃvɛjk]), also spelled Schweik or Schwejk

    Michael – Nashville TN

    Go to Wikipedia for a good cartoon pic!
    Many of the situations and characters seem to have been inspired, at
    least in part, by Hašek’s service in the 91st Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Army.
    However, the novel also deals with broader anti-war themes: essentially
    a series of absurdly comic episodes, it explores both the pointlessness
    and futility of conflict in general and of military discipline,
    specifically Austrian military discipline, in particular. Many of its
    characters, especially the Czechs, are participating in a conflict they
    do not understand on behalf of a country to which they have no loyalty.

    • Mk3900

      The revival of interest in Svejk in eastern Europe under communism is an example of beating the censors.  Hasek makes fun of the absurd bureaucracy under imperial Austria.  Because the work criticized pre-communist imperialist regime it was allowed by Soviet and communist censors.  The subversive trick was to READ IT as a perfect illustration of the absurdity of communist bureaucracy. nihil novi sub sole!

  • Gerald Fnord

    You just lost The Game.

  • Mel

    Honey Badger Don’t Care is fantastic!

  • DJS

    I’m a fan of rage comics.  There is certainly an over abundance of them on the web, but I find some of them to be a humorous insight to the human condition as told through an open source platform.

  • Unspokenunheard

    I feel like a good majority of memes begin as inside jokes such as the “arrow to the knee” meme.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    And then comes the day when a child has to grow up, earn a living, and do some good in the world. . .

  • Anonymous

    Nyan Cat went on WAYYYYY to long in the bumper.  I bet the producers were trying to see how long they could play it before they just had to turn it off.  I love/hate Nyan Cat :3

  • Bin

    Minecraft, Word War III, Terraria, Bastion – if you know what those are, you are truly part of the 21 century wave.

  • Michael

    Somewhere deep I believe we all wish that the real voice of America would be heard.  Maybe these memes, arriving first on comedic wings, are the new voices crying in the wilderness.  If real solutions, serious solutions for our collective problems are to come from average Americans the voices have to rise to the level of a national conversation… but where will this voice be heard?  Maybe to tune in we have to first collectively tune out… how about an… “All News Is Mainstream” National Tune out?  Memes, anyone?

  • David

    I appreciate the program’s efforts to stay current and relevant to different generations, but what the phenomenon of memes indicates to me is the trivialization of popular discourse and how distractable we can be, even (or maybe especially in the midst of a polarized political campaign. The cultural significance and creative potential of memes is not comparable to rock and roll; it’s closer to “knock-knock” jokes or the fad for Mad Libs in the 1960s. Thanks for bringing memes to our attention, but the feeling today’s program left me with was that many young people don’t have a clue where their real interests lie.

  • Chris

    The more this internet shorthand and nonsense is held up as legitimate, the less we can expect from culture in the future. We’re turning into groupthink zombies with no attention spans, folks.

  • Confusgras

    similar to texts from hilary, but much moar chilling


  • Confusgras


    a great database for internet abbreviations 

  • http://www.edgartownnews.blogspot.com Sara Piazza

    Memes reflect our desperate need for community in a world where there is increasingly none. No corner coffee shops; we all live scattered hither and yon, which necessitates our driving everywhere, precluding even the most basic of human connections: eye-contact with people on the street. Not so many years ago our TV sets brought in a total of 3 stations and we’d meet at school or in the work place and discuss the shows in common that we had watched the night before, and the radio stations had a limited menu of top-10 songs that we all knew and sang along to.  Few people attend houses of worship these days, so what is there that connects us anymore, besides the meme?

    Even meme is becoming a meme.

  • Anonymous

    How to eliminate the fun in something by analyzing the hell out of it.

    • http://www.edgartownnews.blogspot.com Sara Piazza


  • http://www.ghostfreeman.net Cameron Kilgore

    I just got rickrolled :(

    • http://www.edgartownnews.blogspot.com Sara Piazza


  • Kelly Haden-Farrington

    One of my favorites is the Amazon product reviews.  I love the idea of using a product review as a creative writing exercise.  Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 gal by far has the best.

  • Pingback: Hide Your Kids, Hide Your Wife — ROFLCon Takes The Town | WBUR

  • Bin

    Minecraft. Terraria. Word War III. Get up to speed, NPR…

  • Pingback: The Internet — In Real Life! | Radio Boston

  • Pingback: All I Really Need To Know I Learned At ROFLCon | WBUR

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