So, this is it. We've entered the last few days of what some call the Aughts. And if you visited our Web site recently, you've seen some of our critics' picks for the best books, films and music of the past 10 years. But there's one entirely new form of culture that came into its own over the past decade: the Internet meme.
They're basically nonsensical inside jokes that form on message boards and blogs, and then spiral off into the wider Internet. For instance, you might have been sent a link to see a video of - say, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's cats, and right in the middle of that video, the whole thing would change to this:
(Soundbite of song, "Never Gonna Give You Up")
Mr. RICK ASTLEY (Singer): (Singing) We're no strangers to love. You know the rules, and so do I.
RAZ: That's the video for the 1987 song, "Never Gonna Give You Up" by Rick Astley. It's a classic online prank known as Rickrolling.
Now, over the past few weeks and in the coming months, we're exploring some of the ideas that have made the Internet what it is today - 40 years since its creation.
Our series is called "The Net at 40," and joining us to talk about some of the prominent memes of the past decade is Kenyatta Cheese. He's the cofounder of the Web site KnowYourMeme.com.
Welcome to the program.
Mr. KENYATTA CHEESE (Cofounder, KnowYourMeme.com): Hey. Thanks for having me.
RAZ: The word meme is not a new word, right? I mean -
Mr. CHEESE: No, not at all.
RAZ: Internet meme is new, but where does the word meme come from??
Mr. CHEESE: So, everyone's familiar with the word gene, right?
Mr. CHEESE: Well, Richard Dawkins also came up with this term meme, which is basically a unit of cultural information that kind of just spreads on its own - or, you know, spreads through us and everything.
RAZ: This is the British biologist, Dawkins.
Mr. CHEESE: Yes. Internet memes is kind of like the illegitimate cousin of that stuff.
RAZ: And when did Internet memes really start to emerge?
Mr. CHEESE: Late '80s, early '90s. You know, you had people meeting on bulletin boards, you know, people would meet and kind of talk about stuff, and jokes would emerge that only made sense within the context of the bulletin board. The emoticon - that sideways smiley?
RAZ: Oh, yeah.
Mr. CHEESE: You know, that's kind of the, you know, the first Internet meme.
RAZ: So, let me first ask you about the Rickrolling. Where did this idea come from, and why Rick Astley?
Mr. CHEESE: It started off on a site called 4chan and quickly spread throughout the rest of the Internet. It's funny because it, you know, it's nonsense, it's unexpected.
RAZ: And this actually became such a phenomenon that it got to the point where at the Macy's Day Parade in 2008, there was a float and it was puppets singing something, and then right in the middle of it, the real Rick Astley comes out of the float and starts singing his song. I mean, everyone apparently got the joke.
Mr. CHEESE: Well, you know, I think half of America got the joke, and then the other half just kind of, you know, enjoyed the fact that it was Rick Astley, you know, appearing in a bunch of puppets. So...
RAZ: It was so weird.
Mr. CHEESE: It was weird but it was something where because of the fact that you have so much of common culture happening online now, right? That's a place where traditional content kind of needs a look-to to find out what people are interested in, how to connect with them.
RAZ: One of the most famous ones is this kid called the Star Wars Kid. And I guess someone posted this online without his permission, and it's become kind of like the best-known meme. What's the story behind that one?
Mr. CHEESE: Star Wars Kid was a 16-year-old named Ghyslain in Canada who recorded this video of himself using this golf ball retriever sort of as a weapon. But then, there were people who actually went and took that original video and started applying these very sophisticated visual effects to it.
(Soundbite of sound effects)
RAZ: Like laser beams coming at him or lasers coming...
Mr. CHEESE: Laser beams coming at him, you know; Yoda doing battle with him; putting him into the trailer for "The Matrix."
RAZ: What happened to the kid?
Mr. CHEESE: The kid kind of disappeared. He kind of went off the radar. But in the meantime, his family sued the parents of the kids who actually put the video up.
RAZ: There are a couple of these memes that have been so enormously successful, I mean, in the sense that so many millions of people have seen them. I'm wondering if the people behind them have become famous. And, for example, there's one really famous one from a few years ago. I guess it's sort of known as the Numa Numa Dance. And it's this guy lip-synching and dancing to this song:
(Soundbite of song, "Dragostea din tei")
Mr. CHEESE: Yeah, that's Gary Brolsma. When he first posted the video, he actually put it up just for his friends. Well, his friends kind of took it, thought it was hilarious, passed it on to other people, and on and on and on, to the point of, you know, tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, and then millions of forwards and views and everything.
Gary ended up making appearances on TV shows. He was one of the first Internet stars to kind of realize that this is something to be embraced.
RAZ: Looking ahead now, do you expect Internet memes to sort of fade out and kind of just go away?
Mr. CHEESE: Oh, God, no. Internet memes is a new space that kind of occupies a place that television can't, that newspapers can't, etc., etc., where 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 just sitting back and watching TV.
RAZ: That's Kenyatta Cheese. He's the co-founder of the Web site KnowYourMeme.com, and he joined me from NPR New York.
Kenyatta Cheese, thank you so much.
Mr. CHEESE: Thank you.
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