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April 2 2008

Internet Memes

Rick Roll\'dYesterday I posted two April Fools jokes: The knitting list and “a Muppets video“. The video was an afterthought because as the day wore on, and I saw more and more people getting “Rick Roll’d“, I decided it was an excellent opportunity to explain and discuss the idea of “Internet memes” to those readers of my site who aren’t familiar with them.

I know I have many web savy/2.0 types who come by now due to my work at Mashable, but I also have a large number of readers and friends that come by and have no clue what it is we in the tech business are talking about sometimes. As fun as working in the Internet realm can be, I think we sometimes forget that not everyone who uses the net is privy to our own brand of English we have developed, nor are they “in” on a lot of our little jokes. Last night I had to explain “Rick Roll’d” to a very good friend of mine, who also informed me she had just discovered ICanHasCheezeburger, (“I just learned about this place ..I think it’s the same place the satanic verses prophesize”) and that made it abundantly clear to me that we may be getting a bit presumptive with some of our jokes.

So, before I go further, an Internet meme is any video, image, text or hyperlink that gets passed around from person to person until they reach a point where it seems like everyone is in on the joke, with some of the leaking into mainstream entertainment. The first time I can remember a meme going mainstream was the “Dancing Baby” videos that eventually worked themselves into a recurring character on Ally McBeal in 1997. That was one of the first times I can remember thinking, “Oh crap… the Internet is going to be one of the biggest things ever…”

There have been hundreds, if not thousands of memes since the dancing baby: Numa Numa kid, Star Wars kid, Hampster Dance (this one may pre-date Dancing Baby… not sure), and on and on, but I think as of yesterday, Rick Rolling took on a whole new level. The basic concept is that you trick people into hearing, or seeing the video of, Rick Astley‘s 1987 hit song, Never Gonna Give You Up. You typically hide the video in a “blind” link, such as saying “I think this may help explain the quarterly reports better”, the person clicks the link, and it’s Mr. Astley singing away. The Muppets one I posted yesterday is a bit more devious in that it is “mashup” (a combination of two things on the Ineternet), so even though the YouTube preview shows Beeker from the Muppets, you hear him singing the song, hence, a Rick Roll.

Quickly leaking out to the offline world, Rick Rolling first appeared about a year ago, and, for reasons beyond my comprehension, has become popular at rallies against the Church of Scientology, with people playing it over boom boxes in front of church sites. What made me realize it has reached insane proportions was when YouTube set a trap for users so that whenever they clicked on a “Featured Video” on the site’s front page, they were, you guessed, it Rick Rolled. This is what made me questions the whole thing because YouTube has millions and millions of users from all over the world, different age demographics, different languages… how many people didn’t get the joke and just thought the site was screwed up?

Rick Rolling works best when people understand the joke, when they don’t, it just seems odd. This is a lot of the reason I posted the Muppets video because I knew some of you would be scratching your heads, thinking I had lost my mind. My hope is maybe the Internet will re-think things for next April 1st and pick a more universal joke than one only those of us who live our lives on the Net will get.



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