"Thanks for the memery" - How gags go viral
Jokes are no longer told face-to-face. Instead they are forwarded over the Net. Online humour consists of memes in funny images, videos, and Facebook status updates.
By Susanna Kosonen
The first gags about the black rendition of Marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim made it to Facebook already before the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE’s press conference a couple of weeks ago, where the new Mannerheim film shot in Kenya with black actors was first officially announced.
The most inventive jokers posted up photographs of themselves with a can of Tumma marsalkka (“Dark Marshal”) dunkel/Vienna beer in their hand or used image manipulation tools to turn their own or Marshal Mannerheim’s skin black.
These images other users could then either “like” or “dislike”.
The most common added comment was: “Hahaha” or the ubiquitous "LOL".
The Mannerheim jokes, which rapidly expanded to include another Finnish President, Urho Kekkonen, and even a current Finns Party MP (seen in the guise of the Dalai Lama), are typical examples of the Internet-age humour.
Online jokes are quick-fire and brief in nature and can reach vast audiences very quickly.
Why tell a joke only to a couple of friends, when online one can share one's shining wit with hundreds if not thousands of people?
Humour has moved online. It has gone viral. Such Internet phenomena can be considered memes of a sort.
The word "meme" was coined by the English ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976. Dawkins introduced the concept of a meme (the behavioural equivalent of a gene) in connection with the spread of cultural phenomena.
In the original sense that Dawkins meant, meme referred to any unit of cultural information: melodies, ideas, catchphrases, or fashion.
Jokes, too, are memes. ”Life is...” advertising slogans have become a meme.
The Postman Song, from the long-running Finnish children’s television series Pikku kakkonen, has also become a meme hereabouts among members of a certain generation.
The Internet memes are ideas or pieces of information - such as jokes, images, or video clips - that spread very rapidly across a large number of Internet users, especially via the social media sites.
Before Facebook or Twitter came along, memes were sent forward via email.
These chain letters contained funny or touching stories, interesting images, and sometimes threats of eternal misfortune for anyone who dared break the chain.
Memes have brought about changes to our joke-telling tradition, believes Israeli researcher Limor Shifman.
Memes spread considerably faster and to wider audiences than traditional jokes.
The most popular YouTube videos can be viewed by thousands of people within a matter of hours of their being uploaded.
For traditional jokes told face to face it took years to get such exposure.
A popular subject can also mutate to an almost infinite number of different versions.
German director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s excellent 2004 film Der Untergang ("Downfall"), depicting the last days of Adolf Hitler in the Berlin bunker, contains a famous scene where Hitler (played by Bruno Ganz), faced with the news that all is lost, loses his temper in front of his generals.
The scene is material for endless new variants, all subtitled with text that is very different from the words spoken.
The subjects can be anything: personal, local, national, or universal.
Sometimes Hitler rages because of football results going the wrong way, or because Lady Gaga is not returning his calls, or because there is no camera in the new iPod Touch; sometimes the target of his fit of rage is problems with the ticket sales operations of the Finnish railway operator VR or the restrictions on alcohol sales.
The meme has even become self-referential, as Hitler rails in meta-parody at the explosion of "Downfall" parodies on YouTube, blustering that: "...The joke stopped being funny in 2008. Finally there is a mass medium open to everyone, and what do these pinheads do? Try to pass off this exercise in creative masturbation as something more than pointless derivative bullsh*t".
YouTube has long since given up removing the clips on breach of copyright grounds and now actually places advertisements on many of them.
Hitler has also been joined in the fray by a four-legged rival, Fenton the naughty deer-chasing labrador from London. In one clip, the two memes actually meet in joyous cooperation.
Unlike before, on the Net jokes can have global reach.
Often the memes are in the world lingua franca of English, and understanding funny images does not require language at all.
Most of the memes originate from the United States and American popular culture.
However, memes are also often reworked to fit one’s own culture, Shifman points out.
What is significant about memes is their sheer number and the fact that anyone and everyone can create or forward them.
One does not need a science degree to add a funny ha-ha comment on top of an existing image, or even to engage in a little light photomanipulation.
The Net contains collections of established meme characters, such as a crying young woman, an adorable kitten ("LOLcat" or "Cliché Kitty"), or a socially awkward penguin.
To these images anyone can add their funny or off-the-wall comments. The humour springs into action almost spontaneously.
“Before, one had to be able to write creatively or draw well in order to come up with a new joke. Now people can just react to contemporary issues with humour”, Shifman says.
Memes can tell us something about our present culture and especially about what puzzles people, the researcher reckons.
“On the Internet there is an abundance of memes relating to differences between men and women. In addition, there is a lot of making fun of stereotypes. Young people have a need to interpret cultural stereotypes.”
The popularity of a meme cannot be predicted.
A harmless home video can suddenly “go viral” and earn nationwide or international fame. A couple of days later it may vanish completely.
Still, there are certain factors that are common between popular memes.
Limor Shifman has identified six such features: ordinary people, flawed masculinity, simplicity, humour, repetition, and whimsical content.
Some of these contents can be found, for example, in the (in)famous 2006 clip from a Finnish television show called Ennätystehdas (“Records Factory”), in which one Olli Hokkanen tries to drink a litre and a half of Coca-Cola in one go.
Hokkanen fails miserably in his attempt and his explanation: “Can’t do it, too carbonated” became a classic catchphrase.
Cola-Olli’s attempt has been viewed on YouTube something like two million times.
Some parody videos on the same subject have also been uploaded, in which other people try the same record. There are also various song remixes online, into which Hokkanen’s deathless remarks have been sampled.
For a fleeting moment, Olii Hokkanen remained in the public eye, gave interviews on breakfast-TV, and said that he would become a film director.
After that nothing was heard of him.
The joke had grown old, and people had moved on to the next one.
Minister of Culture Paavo Arhinmäki is getting plenty of meme mileage right now, but this, too, will pass.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 10.9.2012
Leave Britney Alone (You Tube, the original, with 44 million views - language advisory)
One of the classic memes is the Demotivational Poster - here is a collection of examples
When memes collide: Hitler and Fenton the Labrador (YouTube, strong language in subtitles)
Hitler reacts to the Hitler parodies being removed from YouTube (YouTube, strong language in subtitles)
Internet Meme (Wikipedia)
A selection of ‘What My Friends Think I Do vs. What I Actually Do’ Posters (similar to the "Writer" example pictured)
Nyan Cat. Absolute simplicity, and yet 84 million views and counting. (YouTube). And no, nothing unusual happens in the 217-second clip.
KnowYourMeme.com: Socially Awkward Penguin
Richard Dawkins (Official website)