Life and Style columnist for the NZ Herald

Lee Suckling: What makes a magic meme?

Miley Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' turned into a viral meme. Photo / Vevo
Miley Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' turned into a viral meme. Photo / Vevo

Last weekend, the popular Tumblr page Auckland Gays said goodbye after two years of witty taglines and Real Housewife GIFs. The website has been a mainstay amongst New Zealand's gay community since 2012. It has brought us sassy satire in the form of cheap wit and self-deprecation; identifying the realities of gay life as if overheard by a K'Road kebab shop owner.

Auckland Gays, like the many websites that came before it, relied on internet memes to get its point across. An internet meme is "an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture", the Merriam-Webster dictionary says. More often than not, it comes in the form of static or moving image (GIF) or video, accompanied by a quick and droll overlaid comment.

A meme created by the Auckland Gays Tumblr. Photo /

In spreading from person to person, a meme goes "viral" - a term marketers applaud and amateurs insufferably seek. Memes, we presume, are created at work whilst bored and nobody's watching; the product of observation, sarcasm and pure opportunity.

Memes carry the cultural ideas of the day. They are short-lived, thus timeliness is of the essence. Memes are not new - nor specific to the internet age - they were present throughout the 20th century through graffiti, cartoons, and other artistic expressions of societal thought. The internet meme, however, is one of the most popular and prevalent phenomenon online - Buzzfeed, for example, has created an entire business out of disseminating them.

What makes a good meme? Originality is first and foremost important. The unexpected goes viral quickly - nobody would have thought Angelina Jolie's leg would become a viral meme, nor did we expect people lying down in odd places to be popularised as "planking". Memes inspire mimicry: they start off simple and creative then propagate and mutate beyond the original author's wildest imagination.

Changing the meaning of a macro aspect of popular culture is also vital to good memes. Auckland Gays did this well by pulling together GIFs from reality television shows, overlaying them with subtitles (that may or may not represent what was actually said on screen), and following up with a tagline to represent a common reality or thought from Auckland gay life. Some of the best included the time-lapsed Your feelings on Family Bar (featuring an excited Rihanna in one GIF at 1.59am, and a turgid housewife in the next at 2.01am), and Being too honest when asked how you are (utilising a bored office worker and the tagline "Oh, I'm fine, its just life is pointless and nothing matters and I'm always tired").

Internet memes are spread via social networking. Tumblr, a social network in itself, is a popular website for posting and re-posting of memes. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are other meme breeding grounds. They're places you go when you have time to kill and need a quick fix of hilarity or righteousness. Anyone with limited knowledge of image editing can hijack a meme and take it in a different direction - the Miley Cyrus/Video Music Awards twerking incident is an example of a meme that experienced hundreds of thousands or incarnations.

Every meme is competing for attention amongst other memes. When Solange became Jay Z's 100th problem in May, the world continuously memed the fight while ignoring the smug advice Gwyneth Paltrow gave on GOOP that week. With a little creativity, though, memes can be combined to prosper throughout the interwebs - see Miley's face-mashed memes with Justin Bieber's arrest photos for further verification.

Why do we love memes? There's something about their banal simplicity. They are decidedly lo-fi. Memes can be grainy, glitchy, and of the poorest image/video/audio quality and we just don't care. The more proletarian, the better. Memes say the things we're too afraid to say. They voice our thoughts on Sally Ridge, our distain at modern working environments, and take backward steps in race relations, acceptance, and equality. Not intentionally, mind. Memes are in place for comedic value; political correctness be damned.

All memes have a lifespan. Sometimes it's a day, sometimes a week. If a meme is still going after a month, it's in the hall of fame. When creating a meme, it's best not to contrive - there are oodles of Tumblrs out there that started off strong with funny quips, but mere days in, dwindled towards the prosaic and will remain a log of online irrelevance for the rest of time. After all, not everyone can be Auckland Gays (or, better still, the fabulous Texts from Hillary from 2012).

The best memes are sporadic and no-holds-barred. They dilute glamour and celebrity and turn it into something to mock - the unflattering Beyonce memes of 2013 were particularly harsh. Good memes leave a footprint. They can contribute positively or negatively to society. They can't be censored, monitored, or served a cease and desist.

Memes are, in the true sense of the word, anarchic. Will meme culture ever die? Miley Cyrus and co. surely hope not. After all, albums such as Bangerz don't sell themselves.

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Life and Style columnist for the NZ Herald

Writer Lee Suckling pens his opinionated thoughts every Wednesday, covering issues surrounding Generation Y, New Zealand's gay community, and the ethical dilemmas presented every day to those living in a tech-centric modern world. Outside of the New Zealand Herald, Lee writes for a range of magazines and newspapers across New Zealand, Australia, and the UK.

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