Internet Memes and Cultural Touchstones

Over the past day or so I’ve been having a conversation with a friend of mine about internet memes and their significance to popular culture.  For those of you who don’t know what it is, a meme is a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.*  So an internet meme is one that is being shared/transferred by the internet.  Think of things like Lolcats, terms like OMG (oh my God), or viral videos like the Chooky Dance or pranks like Rickrolling.

It’s easy to dismiss internet memes as time wasting or stupid pranks, but to any long term users of the internet, a group which increases more and more as time goes on, they are cultural touchstones.  Particularly for the young.  After all, when you’re in your teens and young adulthood, in most cases, you’re at the peak of your pop culture consumerism.  The average person between say 10 and 25 listens to more new music, watches more new television and movies, explores many new ideas through writing than at any other point in their life.  Add to this that your own experiences, thoughts and emotions are growing and changing considerably during this time, which lends more significance to the cultural events going on around you.

Think of it like this.  To my Grandparents, cultural touchstones in their young lives were things like the moment they heard of the end of WW2, or when television was first released in Australia.  The media that this mostly arrived to them in those days was radio, and the references they had in their common language and culture at the time were around things they heard on the wireless, or saw at the pictures (movies).   For my parents, the Vietnam war, man landing on the moon and the assassination of President Kennedy were all cultural touchstones in their lives.  Media still came through the radio, but now television was ubiquitous for them, and their music of the time espressed the emotions attached to these touchstones.  For my generation, the cultural touchstones were things like LiveAid, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Australian bicentennial, the Tiananmen Square massacre.  And through time since then we’ve seen things like the suicide of Kurt Cobain, 9/11, the death of Princess Diana, the Port Arthur massacre, Hurricane Katrina, and more recently events like Barack Obama’s election as US President, the Global Economic Crisis, the apology to the indigenous people of Australia and so on are significant cultural events for the young of today.

Throughout time, from Vera Lyn to the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed, to Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, U2 and Madonna, to Nirvana and Bjork, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, and beyond to todays music icons like Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Kanye West – popular culture has always been influenced by, and a commentary of, the significant events of our time.

The internet as a media is no different to radio, television, movies or print.  It is influenced by, and also takes part in driving the significant events of today.  So just like we made reference to memes from television and movies in past generations, people today make reference to memes from the internet today.  It all cross polinates now as much as radio did with television in the previous years, or movies and magazines, or any other combinations.  Soundtracks to popular movies were played on the radio, which then became music videos on our televisions, and influenced fashions in our magazines.

A really good example is that when Triple J Radio did their Top 100 songs of all time, there was a huge wave of people voting in Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” (it reached about No. 52 or 53 if I remember correctly) just to “Rickroll” everyone listening to the radio Top 100.

This is no different to us picking up sayings or behaviours from advertising, movies, books, music or any other media?  How many of us say “Not happy Jan!”?  When I was a kid, we were all saying “What you talkin’ about Willis?” from Diff’rent Strokes, which is just a television meme.

The real difference being that as a media, the internet covers all formats, where historically, each media had it’s own.  Newspapers were all about print, radio about sound, television/movies about the visual and so forth.  The internet contains all of these formats, so memes can come from all kinds of creative sources.

No matter what your generation, memes have been the language of popular culture since long before any of us were around.  The internet is just another media, just as radio, television, film, books and so on have been before them.

For a list of internet memes that are extremely well known, have a look at: and (some NSFW!)

*source Wikipedia


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