Okay, I’ve got to put my $.02 in here.
When I hear people lamenting about how awful it supposedly will be that more people will know about memes, it brings up a number of issues, all of which should be addressed.
First of all, when KYM was in its infancy, other sites that had been around longer such as 4chan, Encyclopædia Dramatica, and you name it were pissed off that we existed. We were a cancer on the Internet, ruining the memes by pimping them out to corporate interests. Aside from the fact that nobody was making a significant amount of money from cataloging and describing memes--which is supposedly our main purpose here--the very valid point was brought up time and again that the nature of memes is such that no person or group “owns” them.
Yet we tend to be hipsters about the things we think are “cool” and don’t want to see them go mainstream. In 1987, a variety show called The Tracey Ullman Show started to feature short humorous animations between sketches about a dysfunctional family by the name of “Simpson”. The cartoons were pretty funny; in fact, they were funny enough that they spun off into their own show that so far has broadcast over 500 episodes and had a feature film. The interjection “D’oh!” was included in the Oxford dictionary several years back, making it an “official” part of the English language. So, roll back the clock again to 1990, when I was starting college. People were wearing Bart Simpson T-shirts, had Simpsons dolls and figurines, and were constantly quoting lines from the show. Part of me wanted to shout out to the world, “Hey poseurs, I was a fan of Matt Groening’s work since I was in junior high and I was reading his Life in Hell comics!” However, a bigger part of me realized that The Simpsons didn’t mean the end of Life in Hell, and I should be glad that Groening’s comedic genius would get a chance to be recognized by a wider audience, thereby supporting a great artist.
As people have already commented, it is the nature of memes to grow and expand to fill the culture, and if they’re good, solid memes, you can’t keep them bottled up. I think so many people have forgotten the nature of Internet memes is rather a contradictory existence: We think of them as “in-jokes”, but they’re “in-jokes” that have an in-crowd of millions. Memetic spread will happen, and along with it, for better or worse, memetic mutation will occur.
Which gets back to one of my pet peeves about the way we do memes that I think people take for granted, but suddenly become aware of when the Internet grabs onto a meme like “What people think I do…” and suddenly thousands of them are made, most of them not being funny and/or appropriate. I know all of us find that sort of thing annoying, but you have to realize that large groups of people picking up on the concept of memes but somehow missing the point entirely has already happened: We are those people. Let me brag about it for the 20th time or so, but I was studying memetics before the World Wide Web existed. Richard Dawkins did not invent memes; they’ve always existed, but he put a name on them. Language is a meme; culture is a meme; religion is a meme; economics is a meme; heck, the Internet itself is a meme! Technically, what we study here is not so much memetics, but online viral phenomenology. We’ve taken a term that Dawkins coined in the 20th century and given it a new meaning in the 21st. The more that the concept of “memes” become public, the higher the chance that a new generation of people, not fully understanding what came before, will infuse it with their own personal meanings.
And that is memetic mutation. I understand that there’s something irritating and confusing about taking a subject that you’re interested in and having new people change it into something you may hardly recognize, but I think you have to recognize that it’s inevitable. We semi-joke about being “Meme Scientists” or whatever, but if it is a scientific study, it is one that we are, by necessity, studying from within as it is changing and as it changes us.