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The 44th Fire: A Tale of Rhetoric

TheGarbageManNov 2, 2018, 11:45:50 PM

About eight years ago now, I wrote this thing about memes thinking that I had it all figured out. I knew nothing, I still know nothing. I hesitated putting this article as a Friday Tale, but it's from my past and it still feels somewhat relevant. Looking back on its awkward structure and cringe-inducing sentences, I wonder if I'll look back on my current writing in a few years and feel the same? Probably.

Internet Memes

Internet memes have quickly become a fixture of our current culture. What started as jokes being sent via email from people to people has quickly exploded into a phenomenon of websites and message boards. But what is exactly a Internet meme? What different categories, in terms of rhetoric, are there? How do we react to these categories? How can, and are, these Internet memes influencing us in our daily live?

First, What the Hell is a ‘Meme’?

Meme is a term coined by Professor Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene”. In it he describes a meme as an idea that can be passed from person to person throughout generations. It is self-replicating and is able to be re-created. It is spread because of it’s useful nature and is voluntarily replicated. But most importantly, a meme is simply an Idea. A successful one. As Dawkins has said, “the word ‘meme’ was a very good meme.”Bruce Edmond’s article “Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics” states that a meme must have certain qualities in order to attain the status of a meme. First, it must have an original form and two, it must be useful. Bruce Edmonds also set a few guidelines to determine if an idea is truly a meme. They have an original source. They can evolve and replicate. And they show patterns of response similar to living beings. And while the argument of the usefulness of an Internet meme is debatable, it does have a purpose, whether that be information or just humor.

Although Internet memes are created on a daily basis, the journey that it takes for them to become popular can take as little as a day, to years even. John Paull’s article “Meme Maps: A Tool for Configuring Memes in Time and Space” explains that a meme begins as an in-brain entity, it’s gestation period. Now think of an X Y axis where X is time and Y is space. When the meme crosses the space line it then becoming something real and passable to other brains, where the process begins again, all along the line of time. Encyclopedia Dramatica, an online resource for the Internet underground, says that Internet memes bare little in resemblance to Dawkins’ original meaning of the word meme. While it is true that Internet memes and memes are somewhat different, they both have, and have to have, many of the same qualities. The definition of Internet memes is best described by comedian Tom Green, “It’s not possible to understand it, and when you do understand it, then it’s even worse”.

An Internet meme is fairly simple to define, but hard to understand. For the purpose of this analysis let’s say that a Internet meme is basically images of ideas that are spread from user to user of the Internet from sources such as email, websites, or bulletin boards. There must be a certain level of popularity for an idea to become to the status of Internet meme. That is a little harder to define, as there can be numerous levels of popularity. For the purpose of this research, let us assume that if it has an entry on knowyourmeme.com, then it has achieved the requirements of Internet meme. Also an Internet meme must be an idea that has become popular because of propagation through the Internet. Although they can have real world basis, they must have become known for what they represent because of the Internet.

The Rise and Fall of a Meme: The NEDM example

Memes continue to evolve and expand throughout the life. Now some Internet memes get to a certain point of finis. An example of this would be the NEDM meme, popular on the Internet about 2006. Now to understand the creation of this meme, we have to visualize it along the X Y axis that John Paull creates in the realm of time and space.

With this chart, we can see the various elements that will go into the creation of this meme. First we start with the story of Mottles the cat. A Bavarian teenager and his friend recorded the video of them dumping lighter fluid onto a cat and then igniting the defenseless creature from behind a cage. After then video was uploaded onto the Internet, a meme was born, but not the NEDM meme. Bulletin boards and users attentions were grabbed and the video was taken down as part of a community outcry. But before it was erased a few .GIFs were made and were uploaded into a users of the popular site YTMND.com, another reference to the your the man now dog meme. As one user came across this goldmine of a .GIF he added it to his site along with music from the popular first-person shooter Doom. Well one member of the YTMND community, who went by the name of Titanium_gecko was none to happy about anyone putting something like a burning cat on a website. He promptly went to everyone, who gave the burning cat .GIF with the Doom music a five star rating, and gave them one star ratings on all of their sites that they had made. Now rating is super serious business in the YTMND realm and one member asked why Titanium had done this grievous act of one-ing his sites. Titanium explained that he had given those sites a one star rating for the members previous ratings of five stars to the death of Mottles the cat. The member explained that he gave the five star rating because he really liked the Doom music that was included. Titanium went back a gave his sites a three-star rating and said that since he did it for the music he was going to go easier on him. But he said that nothing justifies giving five stars to a cat burning, Not Even Doom Music. At this very moment all the forces that were behind it and nurtured it, gave birth to the NEDM meme. As this message was spread around to various YTMND members, numerous references to NEDM started popping up all over the website. It became popular and relevant to everyone who understood the joke, and even for those who didn’t, but still enjoyed the humor and use of the meme. Gary Marshall explains this sort of behavior in his article “The Internet and Memetics.” In it he states, “infectiousness assumes an importance far greater than that of attributes that may well have greater long-term value such as utility and authority.” This was certainly true of the NEDM meme as the graph below can show it’s rise to popularity, and its eventual demise into obscurity.

As we can see it started it’s rise fast and furiously, before soon settling in almost non-existence. This could be attributed to the usefulness of the meme. While coming from a rich background and having all the qualities of a meme, the real problem that it could not overcome was the use of the meme. Relevant and smart at the birthing point, it’s development period was lacking as there was not much reason to develop it further. Although this is not the case with all Internet memes, most do suffer from this eventual fade from Internet memory. But unlike the Internet, the human mind does remember it, and with that it will always be a meme, a concept that grabbed many peoples attention for some time and also spread with the same idea.

Gap Vs. Rupture

A gap meme is one that has only been altered by text added to the front of the image. It can be easily removed and the original image will remain. The ruptured memes are the ones that have been altered in the image, by editing software such as Adobe photoshop or MS paint. Although the gap memes are easier to make, they can be forgotten more easily, whereas a ruptured meme can stick longer because it is an image not a sentence. Sometimes they are combined, but it is rare. Both gap and ruptured memes have about the same level of popularity and are used at the level of use.

The Three Pillars of Internet Memes

For the purpose of research I would like to do is to categorize Internet memes into something a Rhetorician could understand. I’ll begin with the three basics of rhetoric as defined by Aristotle. Ethos, the ethics. Logos, the logical. And Pathos, the pathetic.


Ethos can be thought of as the voice of authority in rhetoric. It’s the ethos of a man, his ethics or character that makes you agree or disagree with what he has to say. In Internet memes we can think of ethos as the voice of familiarity. We see these celebrities and politicians in much of our daily news and therefore we can understand who they are, just by seeing their faces. With this knowledge in place, we move forward to mock or elevate this person. These are the two different ways in which these memes are approached. Through the actions of the memeter (what I call the creator or changer of a meme) the person of known is either made fun of, as the picture of Keanu Reeves above is demonstrating, or can do the opposite and make the person sound better than before, such as the example below.

As you can see, whereas the first image was making fun of the ethos of Keanu Reeves and him not feeling so well, this one features Russian politician Vladimir Putin as being able to handle Chuck Norris in a fight, a reference towards the ethos of both him and Chuck.

In these two examples we can see the difference between a gap image and a ruptured image. Now Gap and Ruptured are taken from the Shiappa article “Definitions Matter”. The Gap image is the example with Putin. Nothing is altered in the photo only words are added to give it different meaning than what was actually happening in the photograph. Yet in the Keanu example we can see that the photo has been altered, thereby causing a image rupture, but still retaining elements of its original piece. We all know that a person doesn’t throw up rainbows and kittens (well most of us) and that for someone like Keanu to do that is just silly and funny.


Now for the area of pathos, I’m going to refer to the pictures of animals and inanimate objects that, as I referred to earlier, can be either gaped or ruptured. These images are usually meant to inspire feeling of emotion from the expression of an animal in relations to either the text or the change around it. If it was just a picture of the cat hanging off someones butt, with no text to infer that it was trying to have sex, then it would be just a cute picture of a kitten. But add those two words and the expression on the cat’s face becomes one of mischief and evil. This is where our emotion comes into play and then attaches the text to the expression of the animal.

In the example above we can see the ruptured image of the booze cat meme. This where containers of alcohol are replaced with cut-outs of cats to invoke an emotion, usually one of humorous laughter. In a grander sense these images also reflect the emotional response of what is cool. Where there once was bottles of liquid acceptance, now there is only a cute kitten, and what kind of cool person drinks a cat? No one, that’s who.


So now we go into the logos part of Internet memes. This is probably the true meaning of Internet memes at its core. These are usually always created on the Internet and then spread through the Internet, changed and observed by anyone who cares to look. In the example above we have two of the better known Logos memes currently on the Internet. The FU guy, A.K.A. rage guy, who can never seem to get the word ‘fuck’ out and is in constant middle of it, and then we have the Troll guy as God. Troll guy is someone who just likes to mess with people and should never be taken seriously. These two characters exist solely on the Internet, as there they were created as well. Both are just symbols given to certain attitudes or behavior on the Internet and in real life as well. Both of these characters are self-propagated memes of Internet descent. They were created and spread purely by the means of the Internet and though they could potentially step out from the Internet, they will be forever known as products of an Internet meme.

There are also Internet memes that deal with real-world logos, such as the McDonald’s arches or the batman logo. These are the products of prankster rhetoric as Christine Harold examined in her article “Pranking Rhetoric: Culture Jamming”. This is the alteration of familiar logos, such as the example above, and distorting it into something else. Now when you see the Pepsi logo your mind might be inclined to remember the altered image. This is more of the mutation, or rupture as I explained earlier, of a meme and not truly original, such as Troll man and Rage man are. Though those two go through continuous evolution, their original meaning stays the same. Troll man will always be related to a person confusing or tricking someone, and FU man will always be about the frustration or anger of someone. While their use may change, their meaning cannot. And while they are products of emotions, they are not pathos as they are also the representation of an emotion, hence logos.

What Can Internet Memes Do for Us?

Internet memes are the easiest and fastest way to pass information peer to peer in this digital age. Need to make your movie successful, even though it has a horrible script? Just show a picture of Samuel Jackson, with the words “I’m tired of these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!” Want to make a humorous observation of your cat? Get a cute photo of it with the words “I iz 2 coot.” Internet memes are quickly becoming a cultural fixation, evolving from their beginning as jokes in the inbox. J. M. Balkin writes in his book Cultural Software, “As people are infected, their memes prepare the way for new memes, that, in the process, alter and even increase human susceptibility to memes.” (70-71). The more we consume the more we want. In these days, people claim that they don’t have the time to do things such as read or research a subject. So how do they get their information? They look at pictures. For a Rhetorician this is a golden age of opportunity. 

These eyes cannot unsee what they have observed, ever. Internet memes can both help and destroy, and they must be treated as a very real and relevant thing. If they are not then they have the potential to do more harm than good. But we should always at least get a laugh.

Works Cited:

Balkin J. M. Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology. (1998) New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. (1989) New York: Oxford University Press.

Edmonds, B. Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics.

Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission. (2002)

http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/2002/vol6/edmonds_b_letter.html. Web. 12 Oct. 2010

Harold, Christine. “Pranking Rhetoric: ‘Cultre Jamming’ as Media Activism.” Critical Studies in

Media Communication 21.3 (Sep. 2004): 189-211

Marshal, Gary. “The Internet and Memetics.” (2002)

http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Conf/MemePap/Marshall.html. Web. 28 Nov. 2010

Paull, John. Meme Maps: A Tool for Configuring Memes in Time and Space.

European Journal of Scientific Research Vol.31 No.1 (2009), pp. 11-18 EuroJournals

Publishing, Inc. 2009. http://www.eurojournals.com/ejsr.htm. Web. 12 Oct. 2010.

Roberts-Miller, Patricia. “Dissent as ‘Aid and Comfort to the Enemy’: The Rhetorical Power of

Naïve Realism and Ingroup Identity.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 39.2 (April 2009): 170-188

Schiappa, Edward. “When are Definitions Political? Always: The Case of ‘Wetlands.’”

Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP,2003. 69-88