[Author's note, 4-28-08: Thanks for all the comments, folks. I got a 95/100 on this paper. Some of the criticisms are very helpful, and it is indeed true that this was not peer-edited in any way. I did the best research with what I could find. This paper was featured on MetaFilter as far as I know. This was produced for academic purposes! So please don't sue me... If anyone has any wish to help edit and/or publish this (o rly? is that even legal?), leave a comment or send me an email.]
[Author's note, 4-10-11: Three years later, here's part two on one of my blogs.]
"LURK MOAR." - anonymous
"If it exists, there is porn of it." - Rule 34
[A technical note: This is intended to be a hypertext. Links work largely as citations or "further reading" sources. Links will open in a new window or tab. Also, be warned that I tried to use the least inappropriate examples possible, but you're bound to see gross stuff if you click the links. Click them anyway.]
In November of 2005, the number of web pages on the internet searchable by Google exceeded the total population of the planet. Actually, it was just the first time anyone really noticed, as Google had just doubled its search database to eight billion pages. According to the latest internet usage statistics (September 2007), around 1.24 billion people are internet users (under 20% of the world's population). With this many people on that many pages, how can culture not spring forth?
From the first usage of the ARPANET, the virtually networked world has had its own unique system of communication, representation, and interpretation. From the first solely text-based messages came a culture existing entirely in virtual space. This culture created its own methods of communication to fit the new medium, which evolved as the internet expanded technologically and proliferated in usage. The humble beginnings of text-based messaging gave way to image-ready browsers. Now we exist in a broadband near-instantaneous loading of traditional text-and-image as well as full audio and video.
With this new frontier came a new idea of a "digital realm" devoid of physical presence. Early hackers in the 1990s held this distinction above all other praises: that on the internet there is no race, no gender, no bias; only bytes of data. This also meant there were no names, no faces, and a song became an easily-distributed mp3 file. Songs were shared, but what's more overlooked is how images are shared. Pop culture, which is primarily based on images, flourishes on the internet. Google Image Search allows its users access to near-unlimited images, all of which are easily saved to disc and reused. This power allows users to subvert the "permission culture" of the real world to create new artistic works.
What is most important about all of the technologies that tie the internet together are the allowances they afford. Anyone with an internet connection can download a pirated copy of Photoshop, copy an image of a cat off of Google Image Search, overlay a funny line of text over it, post it to a free image hosting service, and then share their new LOLCat. The only prerequisite to viewing and participating in internet culture is a computer and a connection. (I am not in any way condoning software piracy, I simply cannot write about internet culture without acknowledging it.) Online services like YouTube allow users to contribute to the world wide web however they want.
It is this democratization of culture-production that has made the internet an ever-expanding and endlessly diverse place. The essence of Rule 34, stated as an epigraph to this hypertext, is that anything and everything exists on the internet. The revelation and criticism contained in Rule 34 is that much of the motivation behind that perpetual growth is profane and obscene. This has been noted best by mass media, the US congress, religious representatives, and worried mothers everywhere. However, thanks to the openness and "true" democratic nature of the internet, none of that motivation is about to change.
With that in mind I introduce my main subject, something that dominates the lowest levels of the internet and permeates upward. It is a term and a condition, a plague and a justification, a way of thinking and a postmodern machine. I speak of the lulz. I have chosen the lulz as my main subject because it encompasses not just internet memes and norms, but also the culture and history surrounding them. I have chosen it because it is purposefully ambiguous, like many of the cultural phenomena it is applied to.
Where do the lulz come from? There are varying histories and an array of websites dedicated to them, but I will largely cover the following places: 4chan, You're The Man Now Dog (YTMND), and Encyclopedia Dramatica (ED). There are dozens of other sites I will reference, but none are as central as those main three. 4chan and YTMND serve as not only aggregators of internet culture, but creation points. 4chan is where most internet culture stems from. Encyclopedia Dramatica is a wiki dedicated to internet culture in an attempt to catalog and interpret that culture within its own terms, unlike Wikipedia. While Wikipedia contextualizes and prioritizes entries based upon their "real-world" significance, ED relies only on their "online" significance.
4chan is one of the most popular collections of ImageBoards on the internet. It was started in 2003 as an English equivalent to the extremely popular Japanese site 2channel. It was created as an offshoot of the popular humor website Something Awful's message board. (It should be noted that Something Awful's slogan is "The Internet makes you stupid.") 4chan initially began dedicated to Japanese animation (anime) with smaller sections dedicated to other topics. ImageBoard software is based upon users uploading images to share and discuss (anonymously if one chooses). Over the past couple of years, this has largely spun out of control. 4chan itself is broken down into a series of ImageBoards, each with its own theme. They are referred to by their theme or by their directory listing. For example, "/a/" is the "Anime" board, "/b/" is the "Random" board, and "/v/" is the "Video Games" board.
The original YTMND was created in 2001. This in itself spawned a collection of other websites which used the juxtaposition of image and sound to interesting and often grotesque effects. YTMND in its current form, that of a user-generated-content site, did not launch until 2004. A YTMND is a user-created page which features a combination of an image, animated or static, with audio and/or text. The site YTMND is the aggregator and host of these pages.
Lulz, as MyFOX Channel 11 in Los Angeles describes it, is "a corruption of LOL," which is popular internet slang for "Laugh Out Loud." The video linked is, ironically, a great source of lulz for many of the users it sought to portray. The video is the best available proof of the disconnect between mainstream media and the internet. The idea of the lulz is quite simple: it describes something that is funny solely because of its obscurity, reflexivity, and often obscene nature.
Lulz is the only good reason to do anything, from trolling to consensual sex. After every action taken, you must make the epilogic dubious disclaimer: "I did it for the lulz". - "lulz" from ED
The parodist, obscure, and generally moronic nature of the lulz has been attributed to a small group of rather intelligent internet users who were extremely well-versed with using Adobe Photoshop. These users of the Something Awful forums used their talents to participate in image manipulation contests called "Photoshop Phridays," in which each user would alter a random image into something humorous. Typically there would be a theme, such as a common base image from which alterations were made, or an idea to be visualized (i.e. movie posters for album names, or Halloween in Middle Earth). These users subvert their own skill at Photoshop by mocking themselves and what they create. The early population of Something Awful users (called "goons") was an interesting mix of web and graphic designers leaning toward younger ages.
In 2003, some of these users came together to create a site much like 2channel: free anonymous posting space for anime and random images in an adult, humorous environment. The problem that has developed over the years has been that new users, often male adolescents, do not understand the joke:
[4chan] really is an adult web site. The long running joke that has developed over the past 3 or so years is that everybody on the website, (well, on /b/ anyway) whislt ADULTS, and reasonably intelligent ones at that, engage in moronic activities verging on the utterly stupid. The joke being that everyone acts like the same retarded individual. WHILST KNOWING THAT THEY ARE NOT. The joke is in the delivery.... Eventually, so many 14 year olds end up browsing the site that the original adult userbase has been overshadowed by the masses of underage people who have now turned the joke inside out, and the site has now literally become a place for 14 year olds to be retarded. - anonymous on 4chan
That is why one of the most commonly used phrases in 4chan is "LURK MOAR." What it basically means is that new users should "lurk," or silently observe the activities of the ImageBoard, before posting and using any of the common jokes. The inside jokes are so obscure that it requires a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the jokes before they can be used properly. This is why the average internet user, let alone the average person, finds the jokes on 4chan and described in Encyclopedia Dramatica nonsensical. Although YTMND has greatly helped to bridge the gap, the depth that the jokes take only increases as time goes on.
In a more semantic sense, the lulz found on 4chan and YTMND is a perfect example of pure simulacrum. There is nothing real about the lulz: it is entirely fake, yet original. It uses representations of things like pop culture icons in a totally virtual space. The map of 4chan precedes the territory it covers. The proponents of the lulz - specifically Anonymous - also embody the collective hive mind that the internet presents. One image macro may technically be the product of one person, but the idea of image macros and the contributions to internet culture are dictated by a hive collection of users. Encyclopedia Dramatica exemplifies this.
Before we tackle the depth of the lulz, we must first explore the most common manifestations of the lulz, and explore a small fraction of the vocabulary used.
The study of memetics is traditionally the study of cultural information which survives and spreads much like genetics, through natural selection. Memetics includes the extinction, spreading, and mutation of that cultural information. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and adopted by internet users in the early 2000s. Popular trends and fads on 4chan and YTMND are often referred to as memes, revealing the underlying intelligence of the population.
Memeticists argue that the memes most beneficial to their hosts will not necessarily survive; rather, those memes that replicate the most effectively spread best, which allows for the possibility that successful memes may prove detrimental to their hosts. - Kevin Kelly
It is this idea that is illustrated fully by 4chan and internet culture at large. There is no basis for the existence of it other than simply to exist at the whim of the thousands of users who view them. It is also this knowledge that excites and proliferates the culture. Traditionally, these cultural objects include things like advertising jingles, proverbs, pop culture icons, and viral marketing. Inside the new memes of internet culture, these forms include image macros, catchphrases, YTMNDs, and copypasta.
The simplest, a catchphrase is usually a sentence or less, commonly just one word. Significant examples are often everyday English words corrupted, such as "sauce" (instead of "source"), or Japanese words, such as "DESU" (which implies something is cute). Other catchphrases include "DISREGARD THAT, I SUCK COCKS", "I did it for the lulz", "pics [pictures] or it didn't happen", and "tits or GTFO [Get The Fuck Out]".
These are the user-created pages on YTMND which consist of an image with audio and optionally text. The most popular and well-known exist on the YTMND Hall of Fame list. YTMNDs represent an important step in the artistic development of convergence culture, as it allows users to use scenes from movies or clips of music to whatever effect they please, usually creating mashups between different fictional universes.
Copypasta (copy-pasta) are large blocks of text that are commonly copied-and-pasted because of their humor. The most common form of copypasta is a story that starts out serious and dramatic and then breaks down into Will Smith's theme song for the popular 90s TV Show Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
The words "meme" and "fad" mean the same thing. The word "meme" is often used on 4chan, and "fad" on YTMND; however, they are also used interchangeably on both. Loosely defined, a meme or fad refers to anything that is used repeatedly and is popular. The nature of a meme itself - the "thing" that is repeated - is difficult to pin down exactly. The current draft on the YTMND Wiki states that "each fad is simply a very popular YTMND idea or style that is used multiple times to create similar YTMNDs."
The ideas can range from pop culture icons like Bill Cosby and Chuck Norris to films like 300 and Star Trek. Styles range from changing something serious to something flamboyant (GAYTMND) to an inverse of what is already a fad (PTKFGS). YTMND memes are the easiest to categorize and track because the YTMND site lists the "Top Rated" and "Top Viewed" pages. YTMND's Wiki and Encyclopedia Dramatica both keep track of 4chan and YTMND memes in respective categories.
Most memes on 4chan begin from a single post by a single user, which is then copied and posted again by someone else. If the concept is funny enough it is repeated several times to become well known (not necessarily popular), and then modifications are spawned from it. A perfect example of this is the O RLY owl, which after being posted enough time spawned a counterpart: YA RLY. Then, NO WAI. Then, literally dozens of spinoffs were created. It became popular enough even to warrant a Wikipedia entry.
The timespan for this transformation from "just another image macro" to meme is highly variable. Some fads start and end with a dozen variations in a few days on YTMND, while other image macros take months to spread from 4chan. For example, LOLCats had existed on 4chan for years as Caturday. Only recently has this meme spread to the popular websites I Can Has Cheezburger? and even two applications on Facebook.
On YTMND, a page is created through their interface and it immediately appears on the Recently Created and Random listings. As more people view it and give it a rating between one and five stars, it moves into the Up and Coming listing. With enough views it will continue to the Top Viewed list, and it may also continue to the Top Rated list. Both listings are commonly much the same; people who view the YTMND will commonly give it a good rating if it's on the Top Viewed list, and likewise anything on the Top Rated listing will be viewed a lot. This is a strong criticism for YTMND, in that it is a self-perpetuating system that only keeps a handful of its pages in the "Top" circulation. It is argued that this stifles creativity because easily recognizable fads make it to the top quicker than original sites. The counterpoint is that regardless of the Top listings, one can still see the Recently Created listing and have just as much access to original works as they are made.
The memetics of internet fads rely heavily upon the postmodern themes of intertextuality, pastiche, subversion, reflexivity, and obscurity. How deep do these motifs go? As deep as possible. In this section I will explain the major elements of common memes, including the popular usage of meta-memes (memes about memes, or memes within memes). Also, there is the concept of the "forced" meme and the anti-meme. These occur when a group of people try to forcefully popularize a meme by spamming it.
Pop culture fads are common entry-points for the everyday user and are found most often on YTMND. They are most often subversive of pop culture. For example, the "DO NOT WANT" meme uses a pastiche of pop culture icons and subverts their gestures and facial expressions to portray the denial of something. The majority of YTMNDs in the Hall of Fame are references to pop culture.
Obscure memes are favorable to places like 4chan more so than YTMND. 4chan users barricade their community from the mainstream by using obscurity as a commonplace theme. One of the most popular methods of using obscurity is to use Japanese culture, specifically anime and manga (i.e. Naruto), or Japanese language itself (i.e. Desu). Other memes include video game characters like Pokemon (i.e. Seaking and Mudkip), sex offenders like Brian Peppers, and kid shows like Lazytown.
YTMNDs about YTMND are rare, but they are popular. Most reflexive YTMNDs are better categorized as meta-memes. 4chan has many memes concerning posting on 4chan and 4chan itself. The use of demotivator posters is an example of creating memes regarding common memes. There are also several YTMNDs about making YTMNDs correctly, as well as many YTMNDs about YTMND in general.
A fun and popular tradition on YTMND and sometimes 4chan is to put as many memes in one place at a time. On 4chan, large images are assembled with as many memes as can be fit. On YTMND, different fads act as a cast of characters that exist in the ongoing saga of YTMND. Many of the most popular YTMNDs in the Hall of Fame regard a mix of many meme references in one, often gaining more popularity as the number of fads inside one fad increases.
These occurrences are somewhat rare, and involve a group of people who create a meme and then force it to become popular. In turn, an anti-meme is created to subvert the forced meme. An example of this is the Milhouse forced meme, and the response "Milhouse is not a meme" meme. There are several other forced memes, all of which cause a great deal of scorn among the population of 4chan. On YTMND, forced memes are harder to accomplish because the proliferation of a meme requires more than simply posting one image over and over. However, on YTMND a somewhat common method of "forcing" a meme is to wait until a YTMND is on one of the "Top" pages before editing the YTMND to something else entirely. An example of this is the PACARD!! meme.
All memes are original creations, albeit from different sources, but some combine different ideas that make them more unique than any of the previous categories. These memes are the most nonsensical and often have absolutely no explanation. Some examples include Raptor Jesus, Gonads and Strife, and Bunny Pancake.
All of these elements make up the complexity of the lulz. The depth of these memes continues to increase, including many levels of these elements. For example, many of the Bill Cosby YTMNDs use sound clips from Family Guy, a show which uses obscure pop culture references, instead of using actual clips of Bill Cosby. On the opposite side of the process, the users themselves are an interesting demographic.
No official survey has ever been taken of YTMND, 4chan, or Encyclopedia Dramatica users. However, we can examine what those users do with their own identity. Principally, we can look at Anonymous, the "hackers on steroids" group that grew from 4chan. The idea of the nebulous group is that they remain anonymous in their posting.
Technically speaking, ImageBoard software encourages the usage of anonymous posting because storing user information was space-costly when ImageBoard premiered. During times of high traffic, popular ImageBoards turn off the ability to use names altogether. So what happens when a large mass of intelligent foul-mouthed internet-savvy people join together?
The answer is Anonymous. Their motto: We do not forgive. We do not forget. We are legion. Because none of us are as cruel as all of us. It is this last sentence that has put fear in all of the scared mothers, Republican senators, and religious officials. If users cannot be tracked and act as one, who is to be held accountable? The biggest problem with genuine internet terrorist threats is that no one person can be pinned down. This was a major issue during late 2006 when the NFL received bomb threats posted by Anonymous on The Friend Society and 4chan. Luckily the actual poster was tracked down, but the power of the group remains. There have been other serious threats made by the group, as well as social disobedience acts like countrywide spoiling of the Harry Potter ending on its release night.
There have been dozens of scholarly essays written on the dangers and possible benefits of internet anonymity. (See citations 1, 2, and 3.) My belief is that Anonymous enables a new level of creative freedom, since 4chan has amassed so much unique culture, arguably more than YTMND which is user-based. Regardless, the ability of anonymous posting has lead to an atmosphere of ageism, sexism, and racism. Generally speaking, 4chan is very crude, rude, and grotesque in nature. Disturbing and disgusting images are posted regularly, which drives away many average internet users. Another strong criticism to these activities is that it desensitizes its viewers to an extreme measure. However, in our age of unlimited available information, perhaps it is only evolution that we should be so desensitized to grotesque imagery and profanity. (It is also often a criticism of "decency standards" that no such decency exists in the real world anyway, so why should it on the internet.)
This is not to say that the people behind the posts are any of those things. During conventions for 4chan users, the users who gather are typically everyday-looking people (albeit mostly male, and leaning toward nerdy). Bizarre fetishes and gross imagery are often played with on the ImageBoard, but this is done for extreme humor not allowed in the "real world." It is this shock value which can lure some people and drive away many more, and it is this element that Anonymous exploits to the fullest when it "raids" other websites.
A large component of internet culture is the idea of "raiding" other websites. It is this activity that is often generalized as hacking, which is not to say that illegal hacking does not happen. However, most "raids" or "invasions" involve anonymously posting on other websites in a malicious manner, such as posting the obscene images found on 4chan. This vandalism is also common in virtual worlds like Second Life, where John Edwards' virtual campaign headquarters was covered with Marxist/Leninist posters and "a feces spewing obscenity."
The aforementioned racism and sexism continues to exist on places like 4chan because of their anonymous nature, allowing users to feel less pressure to stay within the norms of society. Most critics within the community blame this on the high level of "14-year-old boys" in the community, contributing to a growing atmosphere of ageism. They also attribute the level of bullying and hacking on the internet to those same 14-year-old boys, even though very few of that young demographic have any idea how to hack MySpace accounts. Again, Anonymous hides the true perpetrator.
The Facebook applications mentioned previously specifically lead me to my next point of a "trickle-up" theory regarding the spread of memes. Internet culture in general has trickled up from the obscure, small spaces of the internet and into popular culture. Now-common internet jargon like "lol" and "brb" were once words confined to a nerdy few. Suddenly YTMND and LOLCats are known and popular on the internet at large, having started from the obscure lower-levels of the internet like 4chan. Furthermore, these obscure artifacts, once popular, rarely change form or content in the process. What was obscene and obscure in the small group does not adapt to the broader audience. Instead, the popularity of the meme requires mental investment by the new viewers. The convoluted and bastardized English of LOLCats has not changed, nor have the styles surrounding other image macros and YTMNDs.
It is my belief that as internet usage rates increase and the next generation of young internet users grows up, this online culture will proliferate throughout the United States and eventually the world. It has largely consumed Japanese society, which regards websites like 2channel as a dominant force at least equal to mass media. If internet culture veterans are correct in their assessment that 14-year-olds are taking control of 4chan, then it is indeed true that today's youth are inheriting the desensitized humor of these websites. Sites like 4chan and YTMND boast millions of viewers, hundreds of thousands of active users, and more than 100,000 posts every day. Entire television networks are dedicated to video game and internet culture, as well as regular shows on cable television channels.
The internet is expanding more and more into everyday life, and with sites like YouTube and Facebook comes an undercurrent of internet culture slowly rising to the surface of the average user. With artifacts like LOLCats and YTMND leading the way, it will not be long before more people recognize Stephanie from Lazytown and the efforts of Longcat in Second Life. The lulz will go on.
I did it for the lulz.
(Because not everything is linked to easily on the internet. At least not yet.)
1 Davenport, David. Anonymity on the Internet: why the price may be too high: by allowing anonymous Net communication, the fabric of our society is at risk. Communications of the ACM. 45.4, April 2002. Page 33.
2 McKenna, Phil. The cyber-bullies are always with you ...: the anonymity of the internet makes it easy for bullies to ruin the lives of their teenage victims. New Scientist. 195.2613, July 21, 2007. Page 26.
3 Gallagher, Mary Pat. Suit charges web site flouted rules for identifying anonymous posters. New Jersey Law Journal. Feb 15, 2007.
4 All the sites I used/referenced/etc: YTMND, YTMND Wiki, Encyclopedia Dramatica, 4chan, 2channel, XKCD, Emerson College's Article Database, I Can Has Cheezburger, Something Awful, The Friend Society, Internet World Statistics, Free Culture, YouTube, Wikipedia, Adobe, Stanford, Edge, MIT, HJO3, Facebook, National Academies Press, John Edwards Campaign Blog, G4TV, VH1, and Urban Dictionary.
(Nothing was used with any kind of permission. Sorry.)