Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Christophe Haubursin: For as long as I've been on the Internet, I've been obsessed with memes. I loved demotivational posters, Leroy Jenkins, Advice Animals, Cereal Guy, Rage Guy, LOL Guy, and, of course, this guy. ♪ Chocolate rain ♪ But at some point, memes left the weird corners of the Internet and became a part of how almost everyone participated in conversations online. Now memes define how we experience pop culture, they're being used in advertising, and they're defining our political moments. And all of that made me wonder this... ( laughter ) ( music playing ) So, I mean, memes are at their core an inside joke. They are a reference that an in group gets and an out group doesn't get. Do you have a favorite meme? Right now, I think my favorite meme is this screenshot from "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas"... - Mm-hmm. - ...of the main character walking down an alleyway and the caption is just, "Oh, ( bleep ), here we go again." And it-- that's-- it's not funny when you say it out loud and explain it, but it's, like, the funniest thing in the world. Yeah, I am way on the out of this. It does seem like the life cycle of memes has seriously sped up. 'Cause I just remember being on Reddit and seeing the "Futurama" guy, the "Not Sure If" meme... - Fry. - ...for, like, years. And now they don't repeat after, like, a day, or maybe a week at most. - Mm-hmm. - So it is more work to keep up. My face is most known for the Blinking White Guy, which is just me making an expression, sort of like an incredulous look, and, for some reason, that gained a lot of traction. I mean, I certainly don't feel like I have any ownership over it anymore because-- or that I really ever did. Which is a little scary in a way, because it is my face and I have no control over it. There's a new phrase creeping into our language from the Internet, and it goes like this... Man: What they call a meme, M-E-M-E. I kind of like that-- Internet word. Woman: It's become what's called a meme, an idea reproducing across the web. Man: The power of that viral idea, the meme, as it's called, - has grown exponentially. - Do you know what a meme is? - Uh, no. - I've never heard of a meme. I've heard of a mime. - I thought it was "me-me." - I thought it was "me-mes." - I thought it was "meh-mays" - I call it "meh-mays," yeah. This is how politics is waged this day. These are the meme wars in action. Christophe: We've clearly come a long way in how we talk about memes. But memes have also come a long way in just how influential they are to us. But to understand why we use the word "meme," you have to go back to 1976 when Richard Dawkins wrote this book, "The Selfish Gene." He spends the majority of it talking about genetics, but in one of the last chapters, he comes up with this new word, "memes," and he's been asked to explain it ever since. The meme is the unit of cultural inheritance. It's anything that's copied, anything that's imitated, anything that spreads around like a virus. So he defines a meme as any unit of cultural information that passes from one person the next. Let me show you how that works. Alex, finish this tune for me. ♪ Ah-ah-ah-ah ♪ ♪ Staying alive, staying alive ♪ Okay, Cleo, finish this sentence for me. - "Live"... - "Long and prosper." Great. Okay, Rebecca, finish this one for me. ♪ It's Friday, Friday ♪ ♪ Gotta get down on Friday ♪ Awesome. So, any of those things, like a tune or a catchphrase, any cultural product that's repeated over time, for Dawkins, that was considered a meme. But then in 1994, this "Wired" article called "Meme, Counter-Meme" by Mike Godwin becomes the first time that people refer to memes within the context of the Internet. It's funny, there's this line that says, "Most people on the Net, as elsewhere, had never heard of memes or memetics." All of that was about to change. ( groans ) Chances are that if you spend much time on the Internet at all, you know what memes are. There are "Shrek" memes, stock image memes, there are Kermit memes. They've kind of become this very essential part of how we communicate, and as a result of that, there is a business to be made out of doing them really well. That's why we're visiting this company in midtown Manhattan right now called Brand Fire. They're essentially this team of meme-makers turned advertising consultants. We're talking specifically to a guy whose Instagram page is called sonny5ideup. He's got a million followers, and he's made a business out of making really great memes that resonate with a whole lot of people. And it turns out being able to do that today is extremely valuable. So, my name is Adam. I run Brand Fire, which is a branding agency in Manhattan. Sonny comes here and works and collaborates on a lot of memes and a lot of content that we create for our clients, and for ourselves, and for our meme community. It's sort of a creative safe space, I like to call it. How do you make money from memes? How does that work? I'll make memes for, like, a media company and just sell it to them. And I'll do the same for, like, dating apps. I would notice people going viral all the time, and I just saw that, like, that wasn't that hard. I had nothing else to do, so it was that or have no job and do nothing. You know, I like absurdism. I think repetition creates-- when you create a pattern of absurdity and it becomes kind of normalized, it's interesting. - That's just memes, though. - Yeah, exactly. And we do this every day, so it's just like, "I have to post today." Christophe: Right now they're making memes for their own Instagram pages, but their resulting social media clout is how Brand Fire attracts new clients. And they're not alone. In the last decade, it's become standard for brands to capitalize on meme culture to sell things. You know what I was thinking? We should make-- I was thinking about even making a concept for a whole account where it's, like, a fake CBD account. But what's the real joke? Like, you have CBD and you mellow out. So, like, what would be a good thing to-- what would CBD go in that wouldn't make much sense? What about, like, a energy drink with CBD? Yeah, like, you'd get a guy relaxing in a chair that looks like a Kyle kind of guy and with a Monster drink in the foreground. That's not a bad idea. This guy looks chill. "Now with CBD, for when you want to just chill." You could maybe fade him in like one of those-- - like an '80s yearbook photo. - Yeah, totally. - Sonny: There you go. - Adam: Chill, Kyle. Yeah. It doesn't get more bold than that. I think this is probably pretty good, right? That looks great, honestly. That looks like an ad in a skateboard magazine. The whole joke is just this kid, he looks so thoughtful, yeah. He's just so thoughtful. You got to take a break from punching walls sometimes, you know, and think about it. Think about all the walls you've punched. Most of memes are just things that a lot of people are thinking that they don't say out loud. So they can just post it and feel like they're saying it without being, like, personally attached to it. Adam: Now we're already starting to come up with, like, the caption. - Right? - Because the caption activates it. The caption's the hardest part because you can make a great image and take hours and hours. The guy's gonna start adding shadows and ( bleep ). You're not gonna catch someone's eye with a news article, like, "Oh, this, that." But you'll catch someone's eye with a popular meme format. And then they'll read it and then they'll-- whether they think it's a joke or not, they're still taking it in. - Yeah. - So, I think it says that we're all alike in ways that we don't realize. Like, if a lot of people can relate to something that you said, then it's like you hit the sweet spot, you know? I mean, what do you feel like it takes to make something that does relate and resonate with people? I noticed the stuff that I work harder on goes less viral than the stuff that I'll make in two minutes. - When you stop and reflect? - Maybe-- yeah, or maybe when you want to reflect. All right, I'm gonna share it. I beat you, bro. ( indistinct chatter ) Thank you so much. This was awesome. Great to meet you, too. Christophe: So, let's talk about the format. Seeing that entire behind the scenes process of a meme being made made me wonder, you know, is there a reason that memes look the way they do? Is there something behind this whole Internet ugly aesthetic? To figure that out, I talked to Whitney Phillips. She was really one of the first people to research trolling and memes. 4chan and 4chan's site architecture played an unknown but really significant role in the rise of what we now refer to as meme culture. And the reason that that happened was because it was not a very robust website. It didn't have a lot of server space. I'm gonna need some help to explain this, so I'm going to text Joss. Can you help me make some art? Hello. To show how 4chan works, Joss is gonna make something artsy and I'm gonna make something scrappy. In the early 2000s, when Internet memes were first becoming a thing, all of these different formats start on 4chan. - Ah, so, this is 4chan. - This is 4chan. Now, 4chan was and still is a very fringe website. But to start a conversation on an image board, you have to post a picture. That's a rule that's designed to prevent spamming. - For example, this picture you made. - My picture. Yay. - Can I post it? - You can. Here you go, 4chan. What do you think of my art? Christophe: But 4chan had really limited server space, so it had to constantly delete old pictures to make space for new ones. My picture looks kind of out of place on this board. It does, and it would. If a thread had a lot of engagement, it would stay up, but if not, it was deleted. So, anyone who spent a long time working on a piece of content... - Like me. - ...like you, on 4chan, got really frustrated when their stuff was deleted very quickly. - Such as this. - No! A 2011 study found that the threads on 4chan's random board /b/ had an average lifespan of just about 9.1 minutes. If you were spending a long time on photoshopping some clever response to something that someone said to you, by the time you get back to the conversation, that thread might be over. It might be permanently gone. I had no idea that you had to be that fast - in order to engage in these conversations. - Right.