Memes are often seen as the lowest form of culture, which is true. But academics, advertisers and media folk have started to seriously examine lolcats and the like—and they're making tons of money doing it.
The Independent profiles Kate Miltner, a 29-year-old digital-strategist-turned-graduate-student at the London School of Economics. She's working on a masters degree studying internet memes, using focus groups to figure out why lolcats are so obnoxiously compelling.
The 29-year-old has just handed in her dissertation to complete the requirements for her MSc from the university's Department of Media and Communications. The focus of her study? Internet memes, ie, often trite, viral images and films. More specifically, her favourite furry ones. Provided she makes it past the examiners, Miltner will soon be qualified to say "I can has master's degree", having completed a qualitative audience study of lolcat users.
The article frames her story as a struggle by poor meme aficionados for legitimacy, and Miltner is happy to play along. "People think 'silly cat picture,'" Miltner told the paper. Wah, everyone thinks memes are cultural trash.
But the idea that no one takes memes seriously is seriously outdated, if it was ever true. Memes make tons of money, and money is taken very seriously. The most well-worn example of this is the Cheezburger empire, which was built on aggregating lolcats and pictures of "Fail"; it spawned a bunch of popular books and raised $30 million in start-up funding in January. More recently, 4chan founder Christopher Poole raised more than $3 million for his new start-up, Canvas, an imageboard which lets people create and share dumb memes more easily than ever.
Nowhere is the capitalization of internet memes more apparent than in advertising, which, if you think about it, is the business of making memes. Kate Miltner, the meme masters student, works in advertising and boasts about her the ability to "translate brands' needs into results-focused digital strategies" on her resume. ROFLCON, the world's foremost (and only?) conference on internet memes was started by an ad guy, Tim Hwang, and helpfully assembles the most notable internet meme experts in one place for the industry insiders who swarm it each year, looking for tips to make their campaigns go viral. This year an offshoot of ROFLCON in Portland, Oregon is co-sponsored by the agency Weiden and Kennedy, which created a stunningly successful meme for one of its clients: The Old Spice Guy, for whom millions of Twitter and Facebook users happily transformed their accounts into free advertising firehoses during a few weeks last year.
Meme culture is serious business these days. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise wants to sell you something.