Originally Published in the Hindu Metroplus in January 2012.
The Japanese are certainly notorious for their use of fractured English, and part of the infamy has its origins in the 1998 video game ‘Blazing Star’. On losing or dying during the shoot ‘em up arcade, the phrase “you fail it!” would appear across the screen.
Now a popular utterance extracted from the meme culture (pronounced to rhyme with ‘team’), one is beginning to find ‘fail’ – as well as its antonym ‘win’ – being used in daily, real-life conversations. The current usage of the term ‘fail’ (and its alternate ‘epic fail’) is best exploited on the internet, by websites such as failblog.org
Apart from contributing to internet slang, internet memes also gain popularity if they have a visual joke involving images. Image memes find their origins on anonymous imageboards such as 4chan, and go viral through sharing sites such as Imgur, 9Gag, Reddit and Digg.
One of the recent image memes that found its way around internet humour sites is that of the ‘LOLcat’. Take for example the Chemistry Cat on Icanhascheezburger.com: A white feline is fashioned with goggles and a red bowtie and is shown in a laboratory, complete with an equation-riddled chalkboard and test tubes. Text above and below the funny kitty indicate the set-up and punch line respectively. One image reads, “I wanted to make a clever chemistry joke, but the best ones argon.” The LOLcat is clearly well-liked since it not only features adorable cats, but also employs a sort of intentionally appalling humour.
“Most memes are primarily restricted to the kind of people who spend a lot of time on the internet, have an internet-influenced sense of humour, and generally enjoy the ‘inside joke’ phenomenon,” explains Daniel Rego, a digital native who scours the web habitually for the ‘funnies’. Daniel feels that meme humour calls out the common “internet-ness” in online users like himself. However, this may not necessarily narrow down the number of meme enthusiasts. While Facebook is the platform on which images and jokes get shared most rapidly, it is on websites like Memebase and Failblog that these jokes originate. Most rage comics are now modified and mass-shared on Facebook by several image board-equivalent humour pages ‘liked’ by thousands. These rage comics appeal to everyday situations such as changing batteries in your TV remote to feeling self-complacent after helping your technologically-handicapped parents.
Sunneith Revankar has contributed to Memebase in the past, and is constantly looking out for situations to find humour in. For Revankar, subtle and witty humour tops the list. “Something like the image with a sign that says ‘Private sign. Do not read’, or the one with the exam paper on which the professor has drawn Gandalf saying “You shall not pass”,” he exemplifies. The process of getting inspired for original material is not a task for him either. “I think the idea of a meme is going viral: to take a famous phenomenon and to make it funny. It gets even funnier when only the niche audience understands it. That’s when the obscurity comes in,” he says.
Interestingly, Revankar’s words certainly sum up the current classification of the internet meme culture; on the one hand, there are cats, ‘demotivational’ posters and rage comics and Youtube videos parodying a now-iconic outburst by Hitler. On the other hand, there are new memes being created every other day, which is indicative of its novelty value, but also a sign that existing memes may not stand the test of time.
Blogger and humourist Krish Ashok also subscribes to the sorting, admitting that there is “some fatigue” setting in with the barrage of new memes being incepted. However, Krish knows what makes a meme stay in public appreciation for long. Through his blog ‘Doing Jalsa and Showing Jilpa’, the writer picks on the cultural commonalities of Indians – Tamil Brahmins in particular – and brings them out employing memes such as rage comics. “Even though rage comics were originally used in mostly American contexts with nasty and inappropriate jokes, I saw the potential in the cultural diversity of India for meme humour.”
TamBrahmRage.com became an instant hit with all age groups when Krish had posted only a few comics. Later on, he gave blog visitors the option to create and submit their own rage comic. “If you are quite good with Photoshop, and have the ragemaker tool, it doesn’t require any special skills,” he says, explaining that accepting contributions and submissions for TamBrahmRage gave him “editorial control” which in turn allowed him to make the comic more accessible. “I wanted to evoke a sense of nostalgia. Every demographic has its own rage comic now: There have been Punjabi and Bengali rage comics becoming quite popular,” he says. Krish holds that meme humour will certainly not die out “as long as there are interesting stories to tell.”
Although Revankar prefers image memes that use street humour over the rage comics, he too agrees that meme humour has reached the masses. “Even the White House rickrolled its followers on Twitter during a fiscal policy briefing; how great is that?” he says, referring to the ‘rickrolling’ meme, which involves tricking users into watching the music video to pop star Rick Astley’s claim-to-fame song ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’.
Daniel also feels that the internet meme is more so a culture than just a phenomenon. “Lolcats and cheezburgers survive because they’re an ever evolving and expanding meme,” he says. “Memes are starting to creep into real, everyday life now; I have friends who’ve been called ‘epic fails’ by even their grandmothers,” he adds laughing.