How are memes born? While there’s no set answer to such a wide question, there are some interesting trends to consider. A cursory glance through the archives of Know Your Meme proves that anything’s game.
For instance, stolen footage of home video embarrassment ranks among the earliest memes. In fact, such examples predate the internet with terrible shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos. Years after its televisual popularity, the same mean-spirited instinct becomes meme with the Star Wars Kid and his cohorts.
Of course, not all viral videos or images are entirely accidental. Accidents, after all, can be contrived. Corporations have gone to great lengths to capture the magic of memes for marketing, even if it includes trying to sell shoes by having Kobe Bryant pretend to jump over an Aston Martin. The Woolshed Company is responsible for a number of famous fake clips, including snowboarders chased by bears and near-miss lightning strikes, as part of a two-year “viral experiment”.
It’s not just “The Man” either. It’s probably wise to be dubious of where any meme like that comes from. Below is some footage, which has been going around for a while now, purporting to show an ordinary labourer’s incredible tape measure skills. When we find out it’s merely a hoax, as cleverly detailed in this video, we recognise it as the mischievous waste of time it is.
All of the above are just different players in the same ballpark (of many) when it comes to memes. In others, memes can display an alarming amount of creativity, wit and parody. YouTube Poop is its own surreal ballpark; an overstuffed citadel of vibrant, jaunty video edits and in-jokes. It’s a tough skin to pierce, but one that rewards its explorers heartily. At its core, it’s a wellspring that dried up long ago. However, by giving the internet many of its formative memes, its approach lives on (along with its tone).*
Creative memes often rely on a simple comedic premise, condensing the fractal tangents of its ancestral YouTube Poop. The YouTube playlist, “important videos”, is rife with viral videos and short-form visual jokes and puns. Many of these memes have an inspiration at their backbone, even if they boil down to re-contextualising preexisting footage. The act of stitching together two disparate videos for considered amusement is creativity crystallised. Their brief nature does nothing to change this, instead reflecting the waning attention span of internet audiences.
Unfortunately, when a rabid community overtakes the creativity of an individual, even the purest expression can devolve into catchphrase. What is “IT’S OVER 9000!” but a pointless, repetitive bleat? “Shoop da Woop” was just the nonsense babble of cliquey teenagers. These memes evoke our desire to be a part of something. Like the Stanford prison experiment, they can get out of hand.
In today’s climate, memes are regularly created by committee. This is exactly what happened with 2018’s darling, Ugandan Knuckles. Similar to the “Pool’s Closed” trope that once flooded Habbo Hotel, it consists of mass trolling in select online chat rooms. Unlike “Pool’s Closed”, Ugandan Knuckles doesn’t seem to have any interest in satire or social commentary. It’s a rag doll of culled phrases, thrown together by a horde of willing participants.
It’s difficult to even pin down the origin of Ugandan Knuckles. Using quotes from one obscure YouTube video and a 3D rendering of a poor animation from another, users of VRChat began to troll anybody they could. From the ashes of utterly unrelated materials, the menace of Ugandan Knuckles spat fully formed onto the internet with this video; likely the result of one dedicated group’s underlying boredom. From there, the phenomenon becomes an insufferable echo chamber as new proponents join the fray.
Some memes have grown to a point where they almost self-propagate. In these examples, a communal obsession drives creativity to new heights (and, indeed, lows). Each based around a central source material, these memes are ubiquitous. One of the most well-known is Bee Movie. Something about the mediocrity of the film captured people. It seemed to make sense to see it warped in ridiculous ways.
It’s been just over a year since “Bee Movie But” appeared on the scene. Since, the amount of Bee Movie remix memes has exploded; so much so that Dreamworks, the studio behind the film, constantly tries to stamp out the fire. Almost at the same time, a musical segment of LazyTown – an oft-mocked, but equally loved, children’s television show – received the same treatment. Whether its lyrics are replaced with Crash Bandicoot sounds or text-to-speech, We Are Number One is doomed to meme forevermore; all out of a single burgeoning community’s shared fascination.
Such shared fascinations may actually be addictions. One Facebook group, “Rock Bottom“, has taken to adapting The Simpsons into memes. Their members are largely Australian, and putting their own national twist on beloved scenes is a conscious thread. The group has evolved into an exclusive and impenetrable Bastille. An unrelenting stream of ideas spews from it every day, preoccupied with recurring motifs like VB Lager, “eye crust”, Australian colloquialisms and “steamed hams”.
The phrase “steamed hams” comes, unsurprisingly, from an episode of The Simpsons. In it’s original context, it’s one of several punchlines in a tight skit. In the hands of a group like “Rock Bottom” it’s an opiate. Their daily gush of memes intermingles repeated quotes with one another into endless combinations, meaning that “steamed hams” can be shoehorned into virtually any scenario for comic effect.
In that regard, the machine constantly feeds itself. Members of “Rock Bottom”, and collectives like it, encounter so many memes of a certain type that they come to expect them. In common with Ugandan Knuckles, it’s proof of the prevalence of groupthink in the curation of memes as a whole. Initiates, once they’ve learnt the jokes and quotes like secret handshakes, feel some compulsion to go with the flow. It’s no different to the drip feed of Bee Movie or We Are Number One variants, except it finds a more focused home in “Rock Bottom”.
Yet, such communities remain ablaze with creativity. A YouTube search for “Steamed Hams But” returns approximately 17,000 results. When filtering the search by upload date, the rapid frequency of these memes is clear. Decades after its debut broadcast, The Simpsons‘ “Steamed Hams” sketch has morphed into a blank canvas for the whims of amateur video editors.
There can be some shockingly deep expression amongst the mire. When you see just how innovative some memes can be with their editing and comedy, you have to question if it’s actually an evolved form of humour. Better suited to the fast-paced mindsets that the internet breeds, memes don’t have to be a lazy exercise in peer pressure. Take a look at the video below, which bursts with talent and imagination.
In the increasingly murky anti-culture of social media, none of us truly know “de wey”. That’s why it’s so easy to fall into pre-packaged followings like Ugandan Knuckles. Memes are now just another way that we communicate, and that’s always going to be magnified in groups. Some will hold their memes to higher standards than others, but they’re now impossible to avoid. The communities that attract us are, like with all art, a mirror image of our separate drives and compulsions.
*I previously wrote an essay about YouTube Poop, and its extensive impact on the memes of today, for Secret Cave last year (available here).