The Internet is strange.
When divorced from the cold technicalities of code, wires and signals, there’s a unique and chaotic sense of collective culture. The Internet has spawned in-jokes, memes, and has radically reshaped what we consider to be mainstream culture.
And often, this happens by accident.
Someone uploads a video, or posts a tweet, and it spirals into something much bigger. It penetrates our collective consciousness. There are countless examples of this, from Rickrolling, to surreal mock-trailers, to fake political Twitter accounts. Here are some of the most notable.
Rickrolling: The Web Made An 80’s Pop Hit Famous Again
Newton-Le-Willows is a boring, sedate, English nowhere-town sandwiched between Manchester and Liverpool. There are precisely two things that are interesting about this place: it has a Nandos, and Rick Astley was born here.
You probably remember Rick Astley from the rick rolling phenomenon that conquered the Internet in 2007. But before that, he was a 1980’s musical icon.
Astley was a kitschy, teenage heartthrob, the same way Justin Bieber is today. His musical career produced a smattering of hits, like “Together Forever“, and “Take Me To Your Heart”, but by the early 90s he had faded into obscurity, as is so often the case in the music industry.
But perhaps the most enduring song from his career was “Never Gonna Give You Up”. All of the excruciatingly embarrassing musical and fashion tropes that epitomized the 1980s were condensed into this three minute and thirty-two-second abomination. It had everything a music video shouldn’t have – bad hair, awkward dancing, and far too much-synthesized bass.
Fifteen years later, it had an unlikely revival in the form of “Rickrolling”. Here’s how it worked.
Denizens of 4chan’s /B/ board would promise one thing – like the trailer to the yet-unreleased Half Life 3 – but instead link to Astley’s hit. The joke being that this song is so bad, by clicking through to it, someone has gotten one up on you.
As is often the case with 4chan memes (the tame ones at least), it didn’t take long for Rickrolling to hit the mainstream.
It was played at protests by Anonymous members. Basketball and baseball games were disrupted with it.
Amusingly, a bipartisan group of Oregon legislators somehow worked it into their proceedings.
But more recently, it was used by the Foo Fighters to counter-protest the Westboro Baptist Church – the extreme, fundamentalist Christian cult best known for their protests at the funerals of dead soldiers.
The pinnacle of the Rickrolling phenomenon took place in 2008, when Astley himself hijacked the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in Chicago, blasting out his hit tune to millions of homes across the US.
@IDS_MP: Parody Becomes Something More
The current UK government is pretty unpopular right now, with only 38% of people approving of their record to date, according to YouGov. That’s mostly because nobody really voted for them (the joys of the broken First Past The Post electoral system), but also because they’ve undertaken a program of austerity which has had a brutal human cost.
The figurehead of the UK’s spending cuts is Iain Duncan Smith – a controversial figure in British politics, and an icon for the capriciousness of current government policy.
But Brits have an amazing culture of parody and satire, as seen by the @IDS_MP twitter account. This satirical account purports to be Smith himself, and emphasizes the fact that many in the UK believe the current government to be out of touch with the common man.
I'm paid £135,000 a year. After petrol, food & housing are deducted I'm only left with £135,000 a year. Like the PM I also accept a pay rise
— Iain Duncan Smith MP (@IDS_MP) June 2, 2015
Like many on the #WorkingClassTories hashtag I was also brought up on an estate. Mine had 200 acres, 100 staff and a moat.
— Iain Duncan Smith MP (@IDS_MP) May 28, 2015
Let’s start the week how we mean to go on shall we? Chin chin! pic.twitter.com/prMyUTTka7
— Iain Duncan Smith MP (@IDS_MP) May 11, 2015
Dropped some turkey flavour crisps at the food bank. Merry Christmas all.
— Iain Duncan Smith MP (@IDS_MP) December 25, 2014
The @IDS_MP account reached its peak when David Cameron – the prime minister of the UK – mentioned him in a tweet by accident.
— David Cameron (@David_Cameron) July 15, 2013
This did not go unnoticed.
— James Manning (@JamesManning) July 15, 2013
— John Prescott (@johnprescott) July 15, 2013
— sarah m (@sazza_jay) July 15, 2013
Youth Hostelling With Chris Eubank
Chris Eubank is the former world middleweight boxing champion, known equally for his abilities inside the ring, as for his eccentric and flamboyant behavior outside of it. I’m Alan Partridge is a cult BBC TV show, starring Mancunian comedy legend Steve Coogan. What could these two things possibly have in common?
Well, on one episode of I’m Alan Partridge, the titular character is pitching ideas to a BBC representative. They’re all pretty horrendous (“Arm wrestling with Chas and Dave… Monkey Tennis”). But one idea was especially ludicrous: Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank – presumably where Partridge would travel the length and breadth of the UK with Eubank, staying exclusively in budget accommodation.
It was a strange idea, and almost a decade after the show was aired it became a meme. Unusually, this is an Internet meme that started life on British terrestrial TV before internet memes were even a thing.
"Youth Hosteling with Chris Eubank" gets closer every year. pic.twitter.com/067XGRNFpc
— Jonathan Edwards (@Jontofski) August 9, 2015
People even showed up to Wrestlemania with “Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank” placards.
— Jason Pavements. (@jphee101) August 10, 2015
All the while, Eubank himself had no idea where the joke had came from.
@CarlPackman Can you please explain the link between me and youth hostels?
— Christopher Eubank (@ChrisEubank) August 9, 2015
I have been seeing this for a very long time yet have never really understood it!
Can someone explain what all the fuss is about?
— Christopher Eubank (@ChrisEubank) August 10, 2015
When it was finally – after almost 15 years – explained to him, the joke came full center. In partnership with Hostelworld.com, a trailer was created. It was glorious.
Harlem Shake: Everybody Dance. Now.
The Harlem Shake is another weird one.
The videos are generally the same: about 30 seconds long, featuring the same clip of the same song (Harlem Shake by Baauer). They start off with somebody dancing in a packed room, with everyone else nonchalantly ignoring them. Then, at the peak of the songs crescendo, the rest of the room starts dancing. Here’s the original.
Quickly, the meme took on a life of its own.
Of course, some interpretations were better than others.
Some tried to perform their own Harlem Shake flash mobs, with limited success.
Eventually, old media dinosaurs like The Simpsons got in on the joke, meaning that it was finally uncool.
The Commoditization Of Memes
This article is about memes that transform into something much bigger, and permeate the public consciousness. We’ve talked about individual memes, like Rickrolling and the Harlem Shake. But what about memes in general? As it so happens, even the most obscure 4chan gag has somehow ended up in the mainstream discourse.
Don’t believe me? Just look at this in-flight safety video from Delta, which features every single meme. Ever.
And here’s some multi-millionaire rockstars trying to cling to relevance by fitting as many Youtube memes into a single video as humanly possible.
This advert from insurance company Progressive speaks for itself.
Memes and Internet jokes have somehow become a commodity; one that’s being exploited by companies and other established players in order to pander to a younger audience, to varying degrees of success.
And let’s face it. Nobody is surprised.
Memes Are Strange
Forget the Internet. Memes are strange.
They start life as small, isolated entities and quickly metastasize into something much bigger. They all seem to have the same natural evolution, and all seem to eventually break into the mainstream discourse.
I’m just not sure why though.
You got any theories? Let me know in the comments section below, and we’ll chat.