What 'I haven't heard that name in years' says about time and the internet

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Photo via Ron Cruz/Flickr (CC-BY 2.0)

How did you even find me?

It's a trope as old as noir itself, one that's expected in any action film where a weary, downtrodden, one-time hero is called upon to once again save the world. Our fresh-faced new characters go looking for some still-living legend, only to find him—and it's almost always a him—at the wrong end of a whiskey bottle, sucking on a cheap cigarette. They approach with great reverence and hesitation, addressing him by a title he's all but forgotten.

From amid the smoke and shadow comes some movement. Our man stubs out his cigarette and lights a new one, offering the gruff, ambiguous reply:

"I haven't heard that name in years."

Sure, the line takes many different forms—"He's long gone," or "You came all this way for nothing," or "I don't know who you're talking about"—but it's always recognizable. And our grizzled vet knows what's coming next.

What makes for a good cliché, of course, also makes for a great meme: formula. Which is how we got to this Thomas the Tank Engine joke.
And the countless variations that followed, most of which trade on the long absence of whoever or whatever you were seeking in the first place.

Like Microsoft's Clippy, for example.

Or cash.
Or a certain pop star known for spelling out the name of a fruit.
Or crime-fighting reptiles.
Or a forgetful fish.
And so on.
But here's where it gets interesting. The "haven't heard that name in years" meme, in its retrospection, is the perfect vehicle for reviving other memes that—in the usual way of the lightning-paced web—are quickly discarded and become vague historical footnotes amid so much digital debris.

Dat Boi, for example, peaked just a few months ago, but it already feels as if years have passed since the zenith of his stardom. Therefore, you get this:

Ditto the dead ape Harambe, whose (faked?) death feels a lifetime ago.
And SpongeBob SquarePants and his boss, Mr. Krabs, whose memehood is now largely archival.
And their fellow memeable cartoon character, Arthur.
Then there's the living, swimming meme known as Michael Phelps.
As well as Pepe the Frog, ancient by meme standards.

And, of course, Bee Movie.

Naturally, the format isn't limited to other memes, and it works with just about everyone (and everything), so long as a cigarette is involved. 
The most closely related forerunner of this meme might be "feel old yet?" or "want to feel old?" template—in which a semi-forgotten celebrity, child actor, or fictional character is revealed to have aged ridiculously, thereby putting into perspective the rapid passage of one's own life.
It's fascinating to see the ways in which these jokes attempt to resolve a cognitive dissonance about how quickly time flows when you're surfin' the 'net. Things get old fast, memes perhaps most of all, but especially even the basic infrastructure that allows ideas to spread and content to go viral. Before you know it, the very network you're on right now will be sipping cheap gin in a greasy dive bar. It'll hear someone come through the creaking front door, order a beer, and ask, "Information Superhighway?"

"I haven't heard that name in years," the internet will say. 

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