GeekOut

The Know Your Meme team gets all scientific on teh intarwebs

"We want people to think we're scientists - Internet scientists," said Emily Huh, Cheezburger network's editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, a webseries and database manned by a small group of people documenting memes.

"That's why we have the lab coats," she said. "We want to have a lot of information in it and not just have it be a fluff video. We want to be taken seriously."

In March, the Cheezburger network (famous for proliferating Lolcats) bought Know Your Meme from Rocketboom, and Huh feels like it's a perfect fit.

"I love our other sites where you can have fun with and make your own memes," she said, "but Know Your Meme is great if you want to explain (one) to your mom or to a friend.It shows the nitty gritty of it all and makes (a meme) easy to understand, with examples."

And while the Know Your Meme videos are funny and lighthearted (some might argue the lab coat part makes them even funnier), they're also the result of dogged research and inspiration drawn from Richard Dawkins' book "The Selfish Gene."

An Internet meme is an expression of Internet culture that starts as a single image, act or video and evolves through participation. Throughout the lifespan of a meme - which the Know Your Meme team often measures with Google Insight, a tool that measures search query volumes over time - derivatives and remixes of the meme capture user interest, and the meme often becomes much more than the one picture or video it began as.

"The word 'meme' has a very strange history," said Don Caldwell, one of Know Your Meme's experts.

In the 1970s, "The Selfish Gene" author Dawkins posited that cultural ideas, as well as biological organisms, undergo natural selection. "He coined the word 'meme' to be the cultural analogue to a gene," Caldwell said.

"That's kind of our approach. The Internet memes we cover have to have significance. We approach the meme as an organism. Where did it come from? How did it spread? When were the major points that this meme went out and reached other people?" he said. "They have their own life cycle."

Internet memes are often funny on the surface, but they evoke a deeper, personal response, Caldwell said. Examples of memes like rage comics and advice animals tell stories about shared experiences - things that people have dealt with in their own lives. "That's what really helps them spread," Caldwell said.

Within Internet culture, "when people see something they identify with, they want to share it and participate in it, because they feel like they have other people to empathize with," he said.

" 'Socially awkward penguin' is (a meme) that I love," Huh said. "I'm socially awkward, and a lot of us here can relate to that meme. Sometimes I'm like, 'Oh, yeah, I am kind of socially awkward like that penguin. I can relate.' "

Memes started out the creations of nerdy subcultures. Nerds and geeks started Lolcats, Huh said, and the gaming community continues to draw attention to inside jokes through memes.

"Things like 'Leeroy Jenkins,' that's probably one of the oldest memes around. The gaming community is huge on the Internet. They're a big driver of Internet culture," she said.

But even so, there has been a gradual mainstreaming of meme culture, Caldwell said. "I think it's had a lot to do with technology itself becoming more widespread. With more people spending more and more time on the Internet, meme culture itself has started to encompass a larger group of people," he said.

Huh looks to Rebecca Black's "Friday" video as an example of a non-nerdy meme (although nerds got in on the action with an 8-bit Rebecca Black film.)

Even mass media, in their efforts to report on Internet meme phenomenon, evolve the content from insider nerd community jokes to a more mainstream message, Huh said.

"Rebecca Black really made the mainstream," she said. "She was on 'Good Morning America.' Media tends to focus on the positive aspects of the meme, whereas the Internet is a cold, hard place. It focuses on the more negative aspects of a meme. People on the Internet were not so kind to Rebecca Black."

But it's hard not to notice, Huh said, when mainstream reporters don't get the whole story.

"First off, it usually ends up coming a few days later or a week later, when a lot of us on the Internet have moved on. It's like, 'oh, that's oldsauce,' " she said. "They may mix up the origins of things or what actually happened.

"I think they're getting better at reporting on it in a more timely manner, but there are a lot of times when we say, 'oh, that didn't quite come from that source,' " she said.

"I feel like we try to treat everything - what some people might even consider silly - as something that's serious and worthy of documentation, worthy of being tracked and studied and given good treatment," Caldwell said. Know Your Meme is now tracking subcultures like Bronies and Steampunk and phenomenons like chip tunes in addition to memes.

"I think certain types of cultures have been seen as serious in the past: culture that was deemed of as certain kind of class, like art and theater and that type of thing. I think people are starting to realize that culture doesn't need to fit these traditional niches to be respected," he said.

Caldwell points to Minecraft as an example of this clash of cultures. It's a game that is currently popular in nerd culture that's akin to a collective game of Legos played on the Internet. Players take great pride in the complex structures they build (like a replica of the Taj Mahal) and share videos on the Internet of their accomplishments.

"The criticisms I heard about it were like, 'Oh, if these people would only spend their time doing something better. Curing cancer or something,' " he said.

"And I always think, 'You wouldn't have these same criticisms if they were spending their time making a really beautiful painting,' but since they're doing it in a video game, it's not worthy of your respect.

"And I think that's changing," he said. "With Minecraft, people love these videos and images of people building amazing things. There's all kinds of ways to express yourself and make beautiful things in nerd culture and Internet culture."