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BELLTONES: What I Really Meme Is ... -- Anatomy of a Happenin’ Thing

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Mar 1, 2013
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Not long ago, I was relaxing in the den with my daughter and a friend of hers. Out of the blue, my daughter asked, “What is a meme anyway? I keep hearing about them and don’t know what they are!” Her friend, a creative writing major, exchanged looks with me. We both knew what the word meant but found it hard to explain. “Well, a meme is, uh,” I started. “Never mind!” she replied, I’ll Google it!” Of course, the first hit was from Wikipedia. Also not a surprise, the description there was spot on. Here is what she read to us: A meme is “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” It occurred to me that if the three of us with six university degrees between us could not come up with a good definition, then there might be others out there hazy on the concept too—hence, this column.

One of the easiest and most tempting ways to define “meme” is to offer examples. The ones most readily recognized are those from popular culture. Here are some recent examples that keep cropping up on social networking sites such as Facebook:

• LOLCats/I can has cheezburger?

• Binders of women

• Gangnam-style dancing

• Call me maybe?

• Hey girl (featuring Ryan Gosling)

• Sad Big Bird

In today’s social networking environment, the potential is tremendous for an idea, trend, rumor, meme, or anything catchy to spread very quickly. This is the phenomenon we call “going viral,” and it is happening every day. Memes can rise up spontaneously or can be intentionally launched. The day after the second presidential debate in 2012, the phrase “binders of women” and iterations thereof spread overnight across the internet.

Another meme from the campaign is what I call “Sad Big Bird.” During the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney said that PBS’s funding should be cut to reduce the deficit, even though he “loved Big Bird” as much as anybody. And so, with lightning speed we were treated to pictures of Big Bird standing in welfare lines, looking dejected with friends, and, in general, tugging at the heartstrings of PBS/Sesame Street fans. People wearing Big Bird suits started showing up at campaign rallies. There were people who admitted they remembered very little from the debate other than the threat to off Big Bird.

Similarly this past year, Gangnam-style dancing went viral. And it goes without saying that gorgeous pictures of actor Ryan Gosling, a library fan, offering various completions to the line “Hey girl …” are loved by librarians. You can see the collection of these pictures on the site called Hey Girl. I Like the Library Too (

Memes such as these are visual and have a picture or video as the focal point. From these, captions and knockoffs abound. Some hang around for years, such as LOLCats, while others are relatively short-lived. My guess is that “binders of women” will not last far beyond the next months, as the campaign and Mitt Romney’s candidacy fade from popular memory. But I am hoping Ryan Gosling does not go away for a very long time.

Who Said That?


This article is available in its entirety in a variety of formats — Preview (free), Full Text, Text+Graphics, and Page Image PDF — on a pay-to-view basis, courtesy of ITI's InfoCentral. CLICK HERE.

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