Cats are everywhere online. They’re grumpy, they’re in business, they can play the keyboard, and even do chemistry. When it comes to shareable content cats definitely top the list, although there have been some serious secondary contenders worth noting, like screaming goats and Left Shark. And while you might have tried not to click on goat-related media, it’s unlikely you managed to avoid all of the Hotline Bling remixes that flooded Facebook, particularly if you have the site’s autoplay feature enabled. The most recent candidate for viral fame was Damn, Daniel, a high schooler made relevant by his stylistic display of his white Vans. All it took to propel him to the forefront of public consciousness was a pair of bright white sneakers and a little swagger. The same is true on for our favorite cats, the goats, and yes, especially Left Shark. They have a degree of audacity. But is that why we share (and share) again and again? What makes viral content viral?
In 1976 biologist Richard Dawkins proposed that just as we ourselves are made up of discrete units (genes) which seek to replicate themselves to ensure their continued survival, so too is culture. These cultural units are memes, and the study of these units is known as mimetics. Memes are words, thoughts, beliefs, music, theories, rituals, fashion, recipes, and any norms that people pass on. In the realm of digital spaces, they're also YouTube videos and funny pictures or sayings, or news stories. Memes establish the units of experience we come to expect. They are ideas, for lack of better descriptive phrase, that have successfully spread via imitation. It is a process that is meant to be analogous to the ways in which genes (and viruses) spread.
We know that contagion is a large part of online transactions. The overlap within our online networks can reinforce certain behaviors or ideas, particularly as we self-select for people with shared interests. Over time our online networks can grow but they also may begin to spiral inward as our connections become connected with each other. The greater this overlap, the more influential the network is on its members. A clear example of this comes from the Framingham dataset. (This data was the byproduct of a medical study that collected information on offline personal contacts, which allowed the participants' social networks to be mapped years later, and for researchers to trace the spread of certain behaviors. The study occurred in Framingham, MA.) The Framingham researchers found that:
- If a person became obese, the likelihood his friend would also become obese was 171%.
- When smokers quit, their friends are 36% more likely to also quit. (Although this effect diminishes as the separation between contacts grow, and loses its efficacy at four degrees of separation.)
- Happy friends increased the likelihood of an individual being happy by 8%.
Framingham demonstrated that your contacts matter and that what they do and share about themselves and their expectations is important. Our networks help us establish a sense of what's acceptable. The more social reinforcement we receive that certain actions are appropriate, the more likely we are to adopt those actions ourselves.
So how and why are cats and screaming goats acceptable as sharable content? They’re carriers for emotional contagion. They indicate the mood of the sharer. And they can signal to others when they are forwarded how they should feel or what may be acceptable to share within certain contexts or groups. In online spaces, where interaction can be limited, this is particularly important. When people consume online content, they assume the emotional state of that content. Happy content will induce happier states, while pensive content may force viewers to consider their position on a divisive topic—and sharing the latter content may distinguish between desirable and undesirable contacts. Framingham teaches us that like attracts like. And establishing similarities and connecting emotionally with others in a space where one on one, face to face contact and all of the cues that go along with it is otherwise limited strengthens the connections that are the foundation for our communities. What you share is reflective not only of you, but of the people you are connected to and what they will accept.
But why are there so many cats and goats? Why is the door open to Left Sharks and funny song remixes and teenagers with pristine sneakers? The volume of online memes is overwhelming at times and it seems that anything or anyone can become viral content. Within evolutionary models fitness holds dominance in determining genetic transmission: the traits that are most likely to enhance our survival tend to be the ones that are passed on. In Dawkin’s original discussion of memes, he proposed that memes behaved in the same way. Memes worked to their own benefit, not to aid or support individuals or societies. They used individuals to further their existence for their own means. A meme would establish itself in an individual’s mind and nest there, associating itself with other memes to create a “memeplex” that would then work to shift the structure of the mind and shape culture.
In this model, memes are the cultural equivalent of viruses. Successful memes are contagious. They find suitable hosts—meme fountains, i.e., influencers—who are inclined to use the Share button and use them to spread among and between groups. This idea assumes that there is a life to memes in and of themselves. One critique of mimetics is that ideas do not replicate on their own. We drive their propagation. The human mind produces ideas and structures them to be shared, and in being shared, these ideas draw out other ideas in other minds. This interaction combines and discards ideas as they fit together or on the whim of the ideator. There is no biological imperative for their continuation. We act on memes through inference and not imitation, and as a result, memes are necessarily changed as we think about them and reinterpret them. This criticism maintains that inference requires cognitive manipulation, while imitation is rote copying.
But this greatly discredits the complexities inherent to imitation. Offline imitation requires the demonstration of understanding and interpretation. Simply raising your hand to speak because you’ve seem people do that in a classroom setting doesn't work in all contexts. No one will look at you twice if you try that on a NYC subway to attract attention. And wearing ashes in the shape of a cross only truly has significance on Ash Wednesday--and if you are Catholic. The point here is that cultures themselves are not stable entities. They grow and shift with time. They're also contextually relevant, which is why there are regional traditions and practices even as we all live under a general social understanding that may govern otherwise. In the instance of online memes, the same content over and over would fall flat with time. It’s necessary for that content to shift and grow in accordance and in partnership with culture. In this medium where transactions can be one-sided, it's important that these variations help us explain our experiences. Memes have to mutate, unlike viruses and genes which can be transmitted wholly. Copying is also sensitive to inference. It is a rich act that requires you have to interpret and understand what you are copying for it to be meaningful. Hitting the share button is a loaded action. It signals that you understand the joke or rant and that it represents you in some way. Any commentary you add also adds to your group’s interpretation of the content. Meme-generators help us to these ends. They allow for the proliferation of similar memes that may share a thematic structure (cats) but can be manipulated to carry different messages. Copy-cat versions of video memes also function in the same way. They work by sharing our interpretation and adding our voice to the dialogue.
Memes may rely on us to be shared, but the best memes do take on a life of their own—the actors in Damn, Daniel have gotten significant media coverage and Daniel received a lifetime supply of Vans—and it mystifies us. They proliferate because they help us tell others something about ourselves. Grumpy Cat allows us to be disagreeable in an agreeable way. Chemistry Cat integrates specific subject matter into pop-culture. And Damn, Daniel gave us a script to laugh at ourselves. When these messages reach a critical point of consensus, we shift as a culture by widening or constricting the parameters of group membership. Memes are self-serving to this point because they’re working to preserve their impact on culture, and they’re working through us to remain relevant.
Internet memes do have a shelf-life. But in the online space, they are an easy means of establishing connectivity. The fact that they can come from anywhere is important because it attests to the ever increasing boundaries of the net communities. Mateo has made his case for cupcakes to 43 million viewers. There’s something there we can relate to. Maybe it’s cupcakes.
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Guadagno, R. E., Rempala, D. M., Murphy, S., & Okdie, B. M. (2013). What makes a video go viral? An analysis of emotional contagion and Internet memes. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(6), 2312-2319.
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