From the moment a Carnegie Mellon researcher figured out that a colon and a parenthesis could make a face, the Internet has provided its own unique additions to popular culture. Lolcats, Rickrolling and Star Wars kid are just a few examples of an entirely new form of culture that came into its own over the past decade: the Internet meme.
Internet memes are basically nonsensical inside jokes that spiral off through the Web. For example, you might have been sent a link to see a video of, say, Nancy Pelosi's cats. And right in the middle, the whole video might change to a 1987 video of Rick Astley singing "Never Gonna Give You Up." That's the classic online prank known as "Rickrolling" –- tricking the user into watching something they didn't mean to see.
"The emoticon, that sideways smiley — that's kind of the first Internet meme," Kenyatta Cheese tells NPR's Guy Raz. Cheese is co-founder of knowyourmeme.com. He says Internet memes got their start in the early '80s with online bulletin board systems.
"People would meet and kind of talk about stuff and jokes would emerge that only made sense in the context of the bulletin board," Cheese says.
These days the most successful memes tend to cluster around certain subjects. "Cute babies, cute pets and violence," Cheese says.
"Internet memes is a new space that kind of occupies a place that television can't. That newspapers can't," he says. "It requires people to go out and create the culture themselves. And, honestly, I have a lot more fun creating culture and spreading it as opposed to the just sitting back and watching TV."