Some time early last week, I began to notice the “What People Think I Do/What I Really Do” graphics on my Facebook news feed. The first time I clicked on one, I had a quick laugh — I thought it was witty. A few days later it seemed like my news feed had been converted into a focused, peer-curated online gallery devoted to the latest, most clever “What People Think I Do/What I Really Do” graphics.
Then my Mom started posting them too. The speed at which this new internet sensation spread grabbed my attention. A quick Google search led me to www.knowyourmeme.com. The website credited artist Garnet Hertz with starting the meme, so I emailed Hertz to see if I could get the scoop on his original graphic. Hertz was kind enough to give an interview about the history of the graphic he first posted on February 9th and the subsequent birth of a meme.
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Don Edler: What is a meme to you?
Garnet Hertz: I think memes are part of participatory culture that have an important home-brewed or DIY aspect to them in that individuals can create them and distribute them on their own. Because of this DIY aspect, a meme can be emulated easily and is able to change and spread rapidly.
DE: What caused you to make the original image/text collage that started the “What people think I do/What I really do” meme?
GH: I had seen one other graphic like it on Role Playing Games that was laid out a little bit differently, with the same sort of plain Helvetica headings, but with four panels. When I saw it, I thought it was a clever way to visually explain how things are perceived differently by different people. A few hours after I saw the RPG graphic; I opened Photoshop and laid out something similar with five images and captions, and posted it to my Facebook wall.
I hadn’t given it much thought, and I had no idea it would go viral — it was just something that I slapped together with the hope that some of my academic and artist friends would enjoy the one-liner.
As soon as I posted it, I immediately realized the potential to adapt it into a lot of other different topic. In fact, I was considering making a few more but for different subjects, but then my wife talked me out of that idea.
DE: So you created this thing for yourself and your friends and you posted it to your Facebook wall. Then what happened?
GH: Almost immediately, this image started generating a huge amount of traffic. I have about one thousand Facebook friends and it started getting shared and shared and shared. After the first four hours, it had had over 400 shares and was averaging about 100 shares per hour. It kept that up until it had been shared about 4,000 times and the last time I checked it was over 5,000 shares.
DE: You have been credited with starting this meme. How do you think that came about?
GH: I should say that when I first posted my graphic, I had made it a point to say that “I made this,” while the original RPG graphic was made anonymously, or at least I never found an author. So I think I was attributed to starting the meme because my image was the first of this kind to go viral, I was a clear and attributable author of the image, and that most of the subsequent meme images that people made directly followed my layout.
DE: I really enjoyed the images you used in your graphic. Where did you find those images?
GH: All the images were just found through Google image search. For the first one, I searched for “Weed.” At first I was going to put an image of Cheech and Chong there, but that wasn’t really that descriptive, so I just found the close-up image you see now. Then I searched for “Crayons” for the second image. The third image is of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” which should be instantly recognizable to artists as one of the most famous pieces of modern art history. For the fourth panel, I searched for “misunderstood performance art” and found this great image of this public performance. I was drawn to the image because of the over-sized toothbrush and amazing high heeled shoes, and I thought it represented the risk that a lot of people feel when doing their work. Finally, for the fifth image, I just searched “Exhibition contract.”
DE: How do you think memes fit into popular culture? Does the term “meme-ification” of culture speak to you in any way?
GH: In my own art practice, I try to create projects that have a popular appeal to them; I build my studio projects in a way that can be communicated through a viral-like structure. However, I don’t really make studio projects that can be quickly emulated — they tend to be time-intensive and laborious.
In terms of “meme-ification,” I think that memes function as an insider language for different cultural groups on Facebook. Memes are small treasures that people find on the internet that they take pride in sharing — or modifying and sharing — with their friends. Memes play a role in forming a communication format that people can riff-off of, and expand on in order to include themselves in the cultural group. In comparison to earlier forms of communication, I think memes operate like Fan Fiction or Zines, where people can modify and circulate media within a group and thereby participate in that culture.
DE: What is the difference between something that is viral and something that is meme?
GH: I think something is viral if it gets popular and spreads tremendously fast: a good example would be a highly popular YouTube video. I think in addition to this a meme is something that people can copy or emulate easily: “LOL Cats” are a great example of a meme because all you really need are an image editing application, an image of a cat and the ability to lay text over an image. You generate an image, upload it somewhere and you’re part of the language of the meme.
DE: When I was doing the research for this interview, I noticed that the history of the “What People think I do/What I Really Do” meme was evolving rapidly, with new versions showing up every few hours. How do you think the rapid evolution of a meme reflects the nature of the internet?
GH: For something to be a meme, it needs to be malleable and spreadable. I think it’s important to note that there is never a singular, absolute originator for most ideas or inventions and especially not for memes.
In fact, if you went back to the original RPG graphic that I found, I am sure you could also find precursors to that graphic and keep digging back further and further into history. Speaking to the changing history of this meme, I think any history — whether it’s the history of film or photography or electric light — anything that is invented like that has a very complicated history. For example, Edison didn’t invent most of the things common history attributes to him; these things have very complicated histories, and the more you research something, the more you find out that histories of origins spiral continually backwards. I think the way histories change is part of what makes historiography an interesting topic.
DE: Can you tell me a little more about your current research or projects?
GH: I am currently an Artist in Residence and Research Scientist in the Department of Informatics at UC Irvine, where I work on studio projects and do work related to physical computing. A recent project I did was called OutRun which is a drivable arcade game with a 1980s style augmented reality system. I was able to take the project to Denmark last summer and it’s featured in this month’s Popular Science magazine.
I am also working on a new book on electronic DIY culture in the context of contemporary art making, its kind of the maker/Arduino world meets contemporary art. I am also working on a diesel-powered iPad that runs on fossil fuel and belches out smoke, its kind of a hot-rod iPad charger dock.
I have a lot of other projects as well, and I try to stay busy — but I should get rolling — I need to get back to writing that exhibition proposal.
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Garnet Hertz is a Fulbright Scholar and contemporary artist whose work explores themes of technological progress, creativity, innovation and interdisciplinarity. Hertz is Artist in Residence and Research Scientist in Informatics at UC Irvine and Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design.
He has shown his work at several notable international venues in thirteen countries including SIGGRAPH, Ars Electronica and DEAF and was awarded the prestigious 2008 Oscar Signorini Award in robotic art. He is founder and director of Dorkbot SoCal, a monthly Los Angeles-based lecture series on DIY culture, electronic art and design. His research is widely cited in academic publications, and popular press on his work has disseminated through 25 countries including The New York Times, Wired, The Washington Post, NPR, USA Today, NBC, CBS, TV Tokyo and CNN Headline News.
There have been a number of versions of this idea, spread through assorted “social media” over the last few years, that attributing the originator seems a lost cause. But it’s not new, virally or otherwise.
Also, this perversion of the term “meme” should die in a fire.
A meme is a bit of “information” (consider the various forms) that, through evolutionary means, spreads and prospers in it’s specific environment (consider the various environments).
Blues lyrics, formats for jokes, mustaches drawn on ads, gender roles, nursery rhymes and fairy tales, porn, psychological and physical diseases, moral and ethical tropes throughout the ages, taboos, religious myths, phobias, and modes of representation in comics, have all wound their ways into the psyches, habits, arts, and lives of the societies that harbor them. These can be picked apart and traced and their evolution as memes can be studied. Foucault made great use of memes. So does Slajov Zizek. And a great deal of literature surrounding the subject can be rounded up: some of it quite dull, some of it fascinating.
At the end of Civ and its Discontents, Frued points out that it may be the case the civilizations themselves can be phsycho analyized: and I think some of the very best meme studies, from those involving culturally specific neurosis to those involving sex and gender, have used memes.
I agree with neurogami that the word “meme” has come to be used only for viral videos and graphics and this is a sad thing. I suspect it is the viral aspect of any strong evolutionary contender that is partially to blame for the meme that has made “meme” mean viral graphic. Sigh.
I hope we do not lose track of the power of the meme as a deconstructive aid, a tool for social science, and a reminder that our brains and societies have some predictable ways of developing, as well as for fun little toys that take off into the nooks and crannies of our digital downtime.
I used to share a huge lab with Garnet when he was building OutRun, but only talked to him before I left UC Irvine. Nice guy. Definitely a swiss army knife of talents.
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