Digital | CYBERIA

Whassup on the Web

It hasn’t made it into Webster’s Dictionary yet, but you already know this word. In fact, it’s already in your head. It’s that jingle, that logo, that look, that idea. It’s called a meme, and there’s a whole branch of social science devoted to it. Richard Dawkins, the man who coined the word in his book, “The Selfish Gene,” wrote:

“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leading from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. . . . Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”

Viruses are often unwittingly (or maliciously) replicated via e-mail. So are jokes. Friends and colleagues love to forward them. The more timely, the better. (People love David Lettermen’s Top 10 because it is of the moment, something they can repeat at the espresso machine the next morning). It’s said that pornography makes up a lot of Net traffic, but I bet humor is a close second. We hesitate to forward political rants or poignant thoughts for the day, but give us a knee-slapper, and we’ll happily fire it off to a dozen closest friends.

Web-site designers utilize this kind of meme distribution when they invite users to send a site’s content to friends. Print publishers inflate their circulation figures since they assume their publications will be passed around, but do they invite readers to do so on the cover? It’s a completely different kind of meme pool on the Net.

Commercial directors and ad designers have long employed the humor meme. It’s effective because we want to share it, just as we would a joke. Perfect-case scenario: Budweiser’s hilarious “Whassup” commercials, which give a new spin to the term “truth in advertising.” (True, true.) In case you haven’t seen this one, the originals are archived at Budweiser, as well as as AdCritic.com, a large archive of U.S. commercials, which also includes spoofs.

Not long after the commercial came out, two wiseguys — Phillip Stark and Graham Robertson — did a brilliant cut-and-dub job by syncing the commercial’s voices with the Superfriends cartoon characters. From that leap of creativity, the meme proceeded to explode, begatting a slew of homemade spoofs: In no time Elian Gonzales and FBI agents, Beavis and Butthead, Speed Racer, and even the Pope were Whassuping across the Web.

In the Pre-Web era, inspired parodies flourished via such vehicles as Mad Magazine, National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, Spitting Image and so on. While they still thrive in the mainstream media, talented satirists can now fling their arrows online.

David Eggers, the best-selling author of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” has branched on to the Web through not only McSweeneys.net (the Web version of his satirical journal), but also at McSweeney.com, a fake family site, which briefly generated some free buzz from a bogus domain dispute. If Jonathan Swift were alive and satirizing today he’d probably be alongside these fellows.

Or maybe he could find work with one of the political parties. They know the power of parody. Every election year, campaign promises and job performances come back to the haunt candidates in their opponents’ TV commercials (which you can also see at Political.AdCritic.com), and now on Web sites. Yes, Iknowwhatyoudidintexas.com Web site is funded by the Democratic National Committee; likewise the RNC is funding Goreinventedprosperity.com.

Parody works well on the Web for several reasons. It offers instant distribution, and since parodies are often fly-by-night affairs, this is crucial for their survival.

For parody Web sites, it’s easy (perhaps too easy) to filch the images, tweak them a bit and produce a deceptively legitimate-looking site. That’s how Yahoo became Hatchoo! (which features some great ad spoofs), how Slate became Stall, Ask Jeeves became Ask Jeez.

As content goes, it’s cheaper to take pot-shots at commercials and movies than create your own. This is the approach of Trailervision and Zapovision, sites that are creating and aggregating all the movie and commercial spoof content. Interestingly, Trailervision and AdCritic.com stream both spoofs and originals. It’s probably a necessary tradeoff to ward off copyright lawsuits, but pairing the twains should provide excellent fodder to any student of memetic evolution.

Parodies are also about empowerment. True purists of meme deconstruction reside at Adbusters.org, the headquarters of sundry Cultural Jammers. Adbusters dissembles mainstream memes with guerrilla satire. Fellow Cultural Jammers at HocusPocus.org have deconstructed Apple’s appropriation of sacred images in the “Think Different” campaign, while BlowTheDotOutYourAss.com speaks for itself. If you’re feeling like your brain’s been parasitized, these sites are for you. True, true. Or you could just sit back, watch the game and drink a Bud.

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