- 1 May 09, 17:04 GMT
On this quiet Friday afternoon before the May Day bank holiday, I've found myself musing on what exactly is meant by "meme". That's because a link is circulating to a rather wonderful chart/website/mashup, which chronicles internet memes.
The timeline on the chart runs from 1976 right up to today, and it lists all kinds of web crazes, fads and phenomena. So in 1993 there is the Cambridge University computer laboratory coffee-pot, supposedly the inspiration for the first webcam. (By the way, I was disappointed when visting the lab recently at its new site to be told that the coffee-pot had been sold on eBay some years before.)
Spool to 1997 and there's the chess match between Gary Kasparov and the IBM Big Blue computer - which, according to the chart, was the biggest web event to date.
1999 brings the Blair Witch Project, described as a "breakthrough use of the web to promote a low-budget indie thriller". It's illustrated with a YouTube clip - but the video-sharing service wasn't born until 2005, which set me wondering just how we used to share video online a decade ago.
More recently, there's an entry on "I Can Has Cheezburger?" (ICHC for short) and lolcats, a web phenomenon that I have never understood. And after reading that "ICHC was instrumental in bringing animal-based image macros and lolspeak into mainstream usage" I am really none the wiser.
And coming right up to date, the most recent meme listed on the chart is Susan Boyle's audition on Britain's Got Talent which, as the world surely knows, became a huge hit on YouTube.
But after enjoying clicking my way along the timeline, I'm not entirely clear how the entries were chosen - or what we mean by a meme. How does it differ, for instance from a "viral", as in "viral video"?
You may remember a few weeks back we had a discussion here about the Today Programme's viral video - and whether it was the genuine article.
In fact, the very first entry on the internet memes chart is meme, linked to the publication of Richard Dawkins "The Selfish Gene" and there is this Wikipedia definition:
"The word 'meme' is a neologism coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins occuring in 'The Selfish Gene' to describe how one might extend Darwinian principles to explain the spread of cultural phenomena. He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (notably religious belief, clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches)."
Some people have told me there is clear difference - a viral is something that is deliberately spread, a meme is an almost biological phenomenon, that just spreads by itself. But that seems to take us back to the viral video argument, where some people were adamant that anything that was promoted by the mainstream media could not be deemed truly viral.
What is clear is that the web is making some ideas - serious and trivial - spread around the globe at an ever faster pace. If the world's online population, in its collective wisdom, decides something is important, we will all know about it pretty quickly.
As anyone who has been online this week will know, fears, facts and fantasies can make their way from Mexico to Manchester faster than a flu virus. Whatever we mean by meme,the internet is a democratising force for ideas. Though, as the internet memes chart shows, an awful lot of those ideas are plain daft.
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