Calling Something An “Internet Meme” Is Not Complimentary

Think about some of the great Internet memes: (Warning: Most of these links have auto-playing sound.) All Your Base Are Belong to Us. The Viking Kittens, and Longcat (who is looooong). The Badger Badger Badger song. “Don’t tase me, bro!”, “I kiss you!”, and “Leeeeeeeroy… Jenkins!!!” Why do we get “Internet memes”, but not “radio memes” or “printing press memes” or anything else like them?

Let’s try a biological analogy: Imagine you had some microorganism that could only survive in a Petri dish full of agar solution, between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 15 to 25 degrees Celsius). Make it too hot or too cold, and this thing will die. Change its food supply to some other, less plentiful, sugar source, and it can’t continue to reproduce.

Wouldn’t this organism be destined to die out?

In the real world, sure. But it might be able to thrive in a specially engineered, very gentle environment, like a climate-controlled lab.

The Internet is just such an environment, but for data and memes instead of living creatures. It’s an environment designed explicitly to propagate information — with no regard to what kind of information it is.

When we say something is “an Internet meme”, what we really mean is “a meme that’s too unfit to survive anywhere else”. Some memes — like democracy, or the works of Shakespeare, or fashion trends or the latest commercial jingle or catch-phrase — can survive and thrive outside the Internet, but some could never have taken off without the Internet making it easy for them.

They’re like hothouse flowers. Calling something “an Internet meme” is effectively calling it “an idea that could only thrive in the Internet’s no-fail sandbox”. It’s not a compliment to the meme at all.

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