Internet memes are fascinating. The term meme refers to ideas and cultural phenomena that spread through society through imitation. The term was first used by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene to discuss how evolution could work with cultural phenomena such as beliefs, fashion and music. He argues that memes are cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate, can be inherited and respond to selective pressure.
The concept of Internet memes relates to this original definition of meme, and refers to the spread of ideas across the internet. Colloquially, internet memes are essentially in-jokes. And like any good in-joke, the meme will often start out as not particularly funny, but after you have seen it 1000 times, it takes on a life of its own, often evolving to something completely unpredictable. Lolcats is an example of a meme that I don't think is all that funny - however, I am quite partial to Rick Rolling, and I Like Turtles is awesome!
I was recently putting together my annual list of most played songs on my ipod for the last year when I realised that I am clearly susceptible to internet memes. Not only was the list Rick Rolled (with no less than three Rick Astley songs) but the top song was one I learnt of through my favourite internet meme, Keyboard Cat. Keyboard Cat consists of 1984 footage of "Fatso" the cat playing the keyboard, and was uploaded to youtube as charlie schmidt's "cool cat". The gag is to append footage of the cat to video of people doing stupid things (falling over, getting hit in the head etc.) - the cat is essentially playing the person off stage, much like getting the hook in the days of vaudeville.
One of the best Keyboard Cat videos - and probably my favourite video ever on youtube - has Keyboard Cat with Hall and Oates playing their song You Make My Dreams. The video starts with a segment of Desperate Lives, a 1982 movie starring Helen Hunt showing the effects of drug use - Keyboard Cat plays off the overdosing Hunt as a cautionary tale against drug use. Then the music video starts, and this is when I discovered the song - check it out!
2009 saw a minor comeback for the song, and even though I have no evidence to back this up, I am going to put it out there that Keyboard Cat is the reason for its renewed success. Here's You Make My Dreams from the movie (500) Days of Summer - video here.
And for a complete understanding of Keyboard Cat, check out the excellent Know your Meme series of videos.