Abby Rabinowitz writes: On April 11, 2012, Zeddie Little appeared on Good Morning America, wearing the radiant, slightly perplexed smile of one enjoying instant fame. About a week earlier, Little had been a normal, if handsome, 25-year-old trying to make it in public relations. Then on March 31, he was photographed amid a crowd of runners in a South Carolina race by a stranger, Will King, who posted the image to a social networking website, Reddit. Dubbed “Ridiculously Photogenic Guy,” Little’s picture circulated on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, accruing likes, comments, and captions (“Picture gets put up as employee of the month/for a company he doesn’t work for”). It spawned spinoffs (Ridiculously Photogenic Dog, Prisoner, and Syrian Rebel) and leapt to the mainstream media. At a high point, ABC Morning News reported that a Google search for “Zeddie Little” yielded 59 million hits.
Why the sudden fame? The truth is that Little hadn’t become famous: His meme had. According to website Know Your Meme, which documents viral Internet phenomena, a meme is “a piece of content or an idea that’s passed from person to person, changing and evolving along the way.” Ridiculously Photogenic Guy is a kind of Internet meme represented by LOL cats: that is, a photograph, video, or cartoon, often overlaid with a snarky message, perfect for incubating in the bored, fertile minds of cubicle workers and college students. In an age where politicians campaign through social media and viral marketers ponder the appeal of sneezing baby pandas, memes are more important than ever—however trivial they may seem.
But trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept? [Continue reading…]