Finding true meaning in memes

Monica Hesse
Writer May 17, 2012

The Webby Awards have introduced a new category in their Brobdingnagian effort to find excellence on the Web: Best Meme.

It might be the most interesting thing they’ve done.

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two. View Archive

Alternately cutting edge and creaky, the Webbys are the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade of online recognition — celebrated, ever-ballooning, tossing candy at the Internet. Monday evening’s ceremony, streamed online and hosted by Patton Oswalt, will be their 16th. Over time, these awards have reached epic proportions: 140 categories culled from some 10,000 nominees worldwide. (Founders say that the awards are plentiful because the Internet is big. Skeptics argue that the awards are plentiful because hopefuls pay an entry fee upwards of $200 to be considered.) Fear not: acceptance speeches are limited to five words.

This year, new categories include Mobile Advertising and Corporate Social Responsibility.

Also, Best Meme, whose four nominees were culled by the editors at Buzzfeed.com. The winner will be chosen by the online voting public.

It’s a fascinating endeavor, to honor something whose definition eludes even those who specialize in it. In Internet parlance, “meme” has come to refer to ideas or images that mutate as they spread around the Internet. Most usefully, the definition is the same as porn: You know it when you click on it. Or when you waste time looking at it.

And what have we been clicking on this year? The nominees for Best Meme are a curation of everything America’s shared on its collective Facebook wall. In no particular order: the freaky “Michele Bachmann’s eyes,” (the former presidential candidate’s baby-blues swapped for Michelle Obama’s, Steve Buscemi’s — or anyone’s, really), the dizzy Nyan Cat (flying kitty/Pop-Tart hybrid), the sassy “Neil deGrasse Tyson” (astrophysicist-turned-poseur-police) and the saucy “Texts from Hillary,” which was created by two Washingtonians and which hijacked the Internet’s attention in early April. (“Whatchu doin?” faux President Obama texts his secretary of state. “Running the world,” faux Clinton replies.)

If none of this make sense, get thee to the Internet.

Most of the Webby’s traditional categories honor the contributions of a few: the team that built a Web site, the person who designed an app.

The Best Meme descriptor is completely different. It honors the work of the hive mind. It honors the global community’s oversoul.

If Adam Smith and Stacy Lambe — the D.C. wonks whose initial image launched “Texts from Hillary” — had posted just one funny image of Clinton texting Obama, they wouldn’t have created a meme. They would have simply created a funny picture of Clinton texting Obama. The idea’s survival depended on the public’s decision to embrace the concept, their ability to reproduce it and their passion to spread it. Ultimately, hundreds of people made their own versions (Hillary texts Lady Gaga, Meryl Streep, Mark Zuckerberg), thousands of people forwarded them, millions were aware of them. Clinton herself created one, and only then did Smith and Lambe declare victory.

“Texts from Hillary” was only successful because the collective consciousness of the Internet implicitly agreed to buy into the image of Clinton as a stone-cold customer, the divinest lady on the planet.

Or “Michele Bachmann’s eyes,” says David-Michel Davies, the chief executive of the Webby Awards. News outlets published essays about Bachmann’s ice-melting gaze on the cover of Newsweek, but it turned out that a picture was worth a thousand words, and a thousand pictures were worth one: “Creepy.”

Memes are often dismissed as silly time-wasters, juvenile jabs, reductive jokes. They are all of these things. But they are also the way in which the masses get at essential truths, arrive at cooperative conclusions, wade through absurdity to find meaning.

Also, “meming.”

(Just ignore that.)

Feeling vexed or perplexed by life online? E-mail hessem@washpost.com with a question or visit the Web Hostess weekly chat at 2 p.m. Wednesdays.

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