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  • 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.