Extending the Life of Internet Memes

Memes on the Internet are pop culture sped up by several orders of magnitude. Like staph infections, memes mutate quickly, spawning offshoots and mashups and all manner of odd progeny. That makes it tough to keep them going and to make money off of them, since they come, change, and go so quickly. It’s even harder if the meme’s an accidental one — if, like the Star Wars Kid, you didn’t mean to become an Internet sensation.

That doesn’t stop people from trying, though.

Take Gary “Numa Numa” Brolsma. In 2004, he made a webcam video of himself dancing along to a Moldovian pop song called Dragostea din tei. “Numa Numa” became such a sensation that even the New York Times reported on it. Brolsma was so overwhelmed that he ended up turning down most interview requests.

I can understand why the video was so popular. The song is catchy and weird, and Gary’s enjoying the hell out of the song. There’s something appealing about seeing a guy have so much fun so unreservedly. He’s also got great timing here: the video starts out with him lip-synching, and suddenly there are wild flailing arms! And jazz hands!

These days Gary has a publicist. He has a website. And as his publicist told the ROFLCon people, who wanted him to come to their convention about Internet memes, “At this time Gary is in high demand and we can only consider events that pay him for his time,” and that some scholars “believe that Gary’s work was the most widely seen and embraced single piece of human generated content since the days of the Tower of Babel.”

Here’s how Brolsma tried to recapture the magic:

Leaving aside the infomercial video effects*, what strikes me most about the New Numa video is how studied it is. What made “Numa Numa” work was Gary enjoying the song, and how his goofy choreography, like the Code Monkey Dance, fit the music. “New Numa” lacks that spark, and it doesn’t have the original’s timing and rising-and-falling action. It’s a pale echo of the original.

*Though it’s nice to see other people have trouble pulling good keys from greenscreen footage.

Tay Zonday, singer of “Chocolate Rain”, went in a different direction. The original video has a synth-and-drum loop that burrows into your brain, a guy who looks like he’s 12 yet has a deep voice, enigmatic lyrics, and weird mannerisms.

It’s nice that Tay explained that he moves away from the mic to breathe in. The video was popular enough that Cadbury Schweppes asked him to make a video for the launch of Cherry Chocolate Diet Dr Pepper.

“Cherry Chocolate Rain” takes the song in an entirely new direction. It’s slick, overproduced, and over-the-top. There’s a weird nod to Apple’s “1984” ad. Tay smiles his way through a complete send-up of rap videos. And every time I hear him sing “Ohio’s agriculture’s based on grains” with a straight face I lose it.

“Cherry Chocolate Rain” works where “New Numa” doesn’t because it keeps the core of what made the original popular and ladles on a healthy serving of crazy. Rather than try to reproduce the original video, it mutates it, re-imagining it as a typical music video.

There are two things that help determine whether a creator can keep an Internet meme going: intentionality and mutability. Did the creator intend for the creation to be viewed by as many people as possible? And how easy is it for the meme to be changed and re-written?

Take the two examples above. Gary Brolsma made his video for some friends and posted it on Newgrounds on a lark. Its runaway success took him by surprise. Tay Zonday, however, was seeking an audience for his songs. He’d written several songs before Chocolate Rain and posted them on YouTube. When Brolsma tried to re-capture the spark of the original, he made a near-copy of it; Zonday’s re-done Chocolate Rain is a very different creation while keeping a link to the original.

Lolcats are an excellent example of how mutability can keep a meme going. Even in their canonical form — cats plus captions — lolcats can be used to make endless jokes. And that’s before you add in LOLTrek, LOLgeeks, LOL My Children, and countless others. Unlike All Your Bases or Impossible Is Nothing, lolcats are above all a form rather than a single joke.

Hey, now that I have a theory and some examples, I’m ready to write a dissertation on Internet memes.

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