Last week I read an obituary for Jim Horne. Horne was a well-known male model in the 40s and 50s, but reached what some believe to be the height of his popularity in the last decade. Perhaps you recognize him.

Horne's image is widely posted on message boards and blogs around the world. It has become codified as part of the language of elite web users - many of whom are far too young to have ever known Horne as a public figure. In some ways, it could be said that Horne's visage transcended his humanity, becoming a symbol of the Sisyphian frustration associated with pointless repetition. While Jim Horne, the man, now lies beneath several feet of earth, the "Aw Jeez" guy lives on as social data - as a meme.

What, you may ask, is a meme?

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According to Dawkins, a meme is to culture what a gene is to a living organism, and just like organisms, memes evolve - they change, are born, and die - and culture evolves with them. As the definition implies, memes are transmitted through the culture by imitation. One person will see another performing a certain action, then repeat that action.

As more people witness and repeat the original action, the meme spreads like a virus through the culture. As it spreads, it evolves as each person inserts a little bit of their individual style into the meme. The internet hosts many prime examples of external memes like Horne's, that spread and evolve through their use on message boards and blogs. Admiral Akbar, for example, transforms from an obscure Star Wars reference to a symbolic warning against traps of all kinds. In this case, the notoriety and meaning of the meme was based on its place in the pop culture canon - Star Wars is a force to be reckoned with, and its fans are known to be almost evangelical in their zeal. Gradually, due to mass familiarity with a meme, it may also transform into a sometimes parodic response to itself and its place in culture.

It should also be noted that, as a meme evolves, it can also die. Just like Jim Horne lived out the span of his natural life, his meme will eventually find its own resting place in the graveyard of culture. While Horne lived for a full 91 years, it's questionable whether his meme will last so long. The speed at which technology and technology-culture evolve dictates that memes are born rapidly and fall out of use just as quickly.

Memes are complex - the presence of a particular meme on any given website can imply many things. It could be the continuation of an ongoing joke, intended to situate the website within the "in" crowd of the meme.


It's a trap!

It could also be intended to respond to someone directly in an almost textual manner. In some cases, memes may be combined with other memes to form a complex communicative web that requires the reader to understand and synthesize several cultural references.

Memes that are born on the internet are not necessarily relegated to remain solely on the internet. As many people have discovered, an internet meme can have surprising real-world consequences. The use of an internet meme can also spill over into real life conversation, for example, I have heard several people utter the term "lol" in daily conversation.

So how are memes born? And how do they take root and spread through a culture? A lot of it has to do with context and timing... and the rest seems to be related to this site. In fact, 4chan's /b/ message board (referred to by some as the "asshole of the internet" for reasons which become obvious after spending a few minutes browsing posts) has been blamed/given credit for many widespread internet memes including "leetspeak/lolspeak" and "Chocolate Rain." Memes are generally extremely mobile, however, and it can often be difficult to trace the full trajectory of a meme's lifespan, especially as the meme becomes more widespread.

Due to the mobility and mutability of memes on the web, the only way to keep abreast of the current usage and meaning of any meme is to actively participate in its evolution. This makes any attempt to catalog and explain online memes an exercise in futility. While I have attempted to explain the cultural framework in which these memes exist, it is up to you to discover the rest on your own. In the span of time between when I post this page to the web and when you read it, some of the memes I've mentioned here may have already died or may have evolved to the point that they barely resemble their original form.

Oh, one last piece of advice before you go: lurk for awhile before posting on a message board... you don't want to look like a n00b do you? ;)

bird