7 Ingredients of the Internet Meme Recipe

A few weeks ago, Jen wrote this post highlighting some of the most popular Internet memes of 2012.  A lot of you liked reading that one.

A few short weeks after that post was published, Jon Dulac is credited with bringing the exciting idea that TKG should jump on the Harlem Shake bandwagon and produce our own version of the 30 second video.

Within a week, the work of art below was born, adding TKG’s name to the roster of businesses, families, sports teams and schools who are responsible for the nearly 40,000 Harlem Shake videos that have been uploaded to YouTube by the time of this post.

It probably didn’t take you long to recognize that that crazy room full of masked dancers was our TKG version of the popular Internet meme.

Chances are, you’ve seen the format before and heard the same 30 seconds of that song repeatedly in the last few weeks. It’s catchy, right?

The cast of characters who have taken it upon themselves with no reward other than social proof and to one up the creativity of the video before it now includes everyone from the Georgia Tech swim team to NBC’s Today Show. The urge to follow suit and produce a video actually cost one New York high school hockey team their chance at the playoffs.  If you click that last link, be warned — there’s a young masked man wearing a sock … and not much else … at about the 15 second mark.

In case you’re curious, DJ and music producer Bauer (a.k.a. the man behind the song titled Harlem Shake that’s used in the videos) will be doing a live AMA on Reddit today at 4PM Eastern.

7 Critical Ingredients of a Successful Internet Meme

Paula Deen

This recent explosion of Harlem Shake knock off’s helped me to see that with nearly all of these Internet memes, there is a pattern forming.

From #bindersfullofwomen to Tebowing to the Harlem Shake, today’s Internet memes all share a common ingredients. By outlining these, we can begin to understand how memes work in hopes of someday building a formula that can be used to launch a single piece of content into the social media Xerox machine.

  1. An Adaptable Standardized Framework. For a meme to take hold, it has to be easily replicable so that others can take ownership over their own version. In the case of Harlem Shake, the frame work produced was anchored in the same 30 second clip from Bauer’s mix. Another standardization was that each video kicked off with 15 seconds of a masked character dancing like a fool in front of what appears to be oblivious by standers. Using standards as a framework allows other Internet users to first learn an easy format, and than adapt their own ideas into the content.
  2. The Waldo Effect.  If every video, tweet or image produced was exactly the same, there would be no reason to tell all of our friends. While having a standardized framework is critical, the framework must be flexible enough to allow content creators to add in their own spin and ideas on the content that’s come before theirs. This aspect of creative freedom helps to create an emotional tie to self-expression.  Don’t buy it?  Think about this — how excited were you and your friends or coworkers after you had produced your own version of the Harlem Shake?  How many times did you watch the raw video and pat each other on the back before uploading it to YouTube.  At a subconscious level, it is a craving for that emotional high that likely drove you to follow suit with the meme in the first place.
  3. A Gentleman’s Agreement for Primary Distribution Platform. For the Harlem Shake, it was YouTube. Only after your video was uploaded to YouTube did your company or friends deiced to tell their friends on Twitter and Facebook. For #bindersfullofwomen — the statement made on national television by Candidate Mit Romney during the second debate — the agreed upon distribution platform was Twitter.  Even today, you can still find tweets being made to that hash tag in small numbers.  At any rate, the nature of a viral meme typically dictates that one primary platform act as the center of distribution, which in turn spawns re-distribution across other networks on the web.
  4. The Art of One-Up-Man-Ship.  As humans, we all have some aspect of a competitive edge, albeit some more than others. It’s this sense of competition that drives us to the greatest emotional reward — being better than the person (or content) that came before us. This meme ingredient is in large part responsible for the over 40,000 versions of the Harlem Shake uploaded in the last few weeks. But that’s not the first. Think back to last year when everyone felt the urge to take a photo, head down and on one knee, in some of the most amazing places on earth.
  5. Mass Media Stokes the Fire. As was the case with Teebowing, #bindersfullofwomen and a few others, mass media attention added fuel to the meme, causing it to spread like an out-of-control forest fire.  This aspect of mass media like television sitcoms, news programs and other prime time entertainment jumping on the meme tends to grab the laggard users who are still in the dark as to what the meme is, and then drive them into search and discovery mode on the web.
  6. Discovered Origin.  So let me ask this — had you ever heard of Bauer before this crazy video meme?  Chances are, probably not.  But for some reason, once a meme takes hold, Internet users have a curiosity to trace the spread back to the origin adding completion to the overall story. We humans tend to want to understand the ‘why’ and ‘who’ behind the media we deem as popular. With memes, tracing can easy or difficult depending on the nature of the meme. But, it’s almost guaranteed that the person or outlet who discovers the truth and breaks it first will nearly always benefit from the being in the limelight created by the meme.
  7. Limited Shelf Life. Already sick of the doing the Harlem Shake? Fear not, for next week or next month, our attention will be grabbed by some new shiny entertaining object.  Think about this — when’s the last time you saw Gangnam Style in your Facebook news feed? (Thank God, right?)  The truth is, each of these Internet memes has a limited shelf life. There is no formula that can predict the duration a meme will stay popular today. Perhaps some statistician will figure that out and share it on a blog post that will get tweeted millions of times.

Can Memes Be Engineered for Marketing Purposes?

A few years back, I would have adamantly said no. But, in reality, it is possible that a brand could find or recognize that one, “purple cow” idea that could suddenly take hold with millions of viewers. That said, it’s safe to say many marketing folks could die trying.

What’s your take on this?  Do you think it’s possible to engineer an Internet meme or is this simply something that happens in our online culture organically?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

four × 1 =