In 1768, all it cost to change history was £200. That’s what two Scottish publishers paid William Smellie—son of a stonemason and master printer—to squeeze the sum-total of human knowledge into a single text.
Smellie toiled for three years on the project, employing his expertise in the natural sciences and “a pair of scissars” to cobble together what would become one of the most important works of reference in Western history: the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Fast forward 244 years: It’s a chilly November afternoon in midtown Manhattan. The three researchers for Internet culture repository Know Your Meme sit in the cluttered corner of an office building, clicking away at keyboards.
Don Caldwell, 30, suddenly looks up. “So should we write it?” he says. I’ve been sitting next to him all afternoon and have no clue what he’s talking about. He’d just interrupted 30 minutes of silence.
Don’s colleagues know exactly what he means, though. The mysterious “it” is receiving a lot of chatter, replies the soft-spoken Amanda Brennan, her pink hair peeking out just above her computer monitor. Brad Kim, the site’s editor, agrees. They probably should write an entry about “it,” he says.
If Smellie had somehow witnessed this exchange, he surely would have believed them either insane or telepathic. Even when seated just feet apart, Know Your Meme’s staff talk shop mostly online. Their conversations, like the world that they chronicle, live largely in a digital place.
It’s a realm that would have been completely alien to Smellie and his contemporaries, and is still foreign to many alive right now. But Know Your Meme’s work, and their discussion today, are the latest and least-appreciated inheritors of Smellie’s legacy. Know Your Meme is the Encyclopedia Britannica of the Internet.
From its beginning, Web culture has been niche, anarchic, and nebulous, typified by an absurdist and occasionally scatalogical sense of humor, an obsession with in-jokes, and a delight in pranks. It began bubbling up from the primordial Internet goo of Usenet discussion boards in the early ‘80s, back when computers talking to each other through phone lines was high technology and email was pretty much science fiction to your average American. The structure of a real culture began solidifying at Web forums in the late ‘90s and early 2000s—places like SomethingAwful, YTMND, and 4chan—and more recently at social sites like Reddit and Twitter.
Web culture always defied easy categorization or research, and its importance to society at large has often been largely murky. In recent years, however, the Web has seeped more and more into our daily lives. The hacktivist group Anonymous, nonexistent just 10 years ago, is the Internet unleashed—a full-blown social and political force whose exploits have become frequent fodder for mainstream media and political chatter. Meanwhile, the Israeli Defense Force announces military strikes on Twitter—with hashtags—and President Obama’s presidential campaign speaks the language of animated GIFs.
“I think the spread of information on the Internet and how it works is becoming increasingly important,” Caldwell says. “We explain how it happens. We don’t just explain what it is. We trace how it spread.”
The word “meme” itself was coined by scientist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 work The Selfish Gene, and it usually refers to an idea that spreads from person-to-person. Applying evolutionary concepts to culture, Dawkins suggested that successful memes mimicked the selfish replication patterns of genes. The Internet proved a perfect testing ground for the concept, and “meme” quickly became a fitting catch-all term to label any popular online trend or cultural product.
Surely you’ve been Rickrolled before? At Know Your Meme, the Rickroll, one of the most ubiquitous and popular memes on the Web, is defined, its origins delineated, with great moments in its history detailed one by one:
In February 2008, during the Anonymous’ Project Chanology protests against the Church of Scientology, “Never Gonna Give You Up” was played from boomboxes, performed, and shouted. The UK daily The Guardian called it “a live rick-rolling of the Church of Scientology.”
Other Web topics not necessarily associated with Anonymous are also chronicled, of course, including great memes in Internet history. Shock site Goatse has a broadly detailed entry well-worth a read. So does one of the earliest and greatest memes, “All Your Base Are Belong to Us,” a catchphrase that went “viral on popular discussion forums in 2000, spawning thousands of image macros and flash animations.”
You can find an entry for pretty much every Advice Animal ever. Accompanying them, as with every other post, are graphs showing Google interest in the topic over time.
The Internet’s eternal obsession—cats—also has a page. “Images and videos of cats are widespread on the Internet,” that entry dryly explains, before laying out in exhaustive detail their long and ironfisted rule over the Internet.
Every month nearly 10 million people across the world click on Know Your Meme articles, either seeking to educate themselves on the meaning of a certain bit of Internet ephemera they’ve stumbled upon (what the hell is a Dolan?) or hoping to dig deep into its murky origins (“Didn’t read LOL”). Anywhere from 60 to 65 percent of Know Your Meme’s traffic comes from Google every day.
The staff for such a huge site is remarkably small: just three full-time researchers and one development staffer. (In contrast, the Britannica had a full-time staff of about 70 people in 2007.)
Know Your Meme occupies a corner on the 19th floor of a midtown Manhattan building that sits catty-corner to the Macy’s flagship store. When I told the doorman I was there to visit Know Your Meme, he had no idea what I was talking about. The offices are owned by digital marketing company Marketfish.
“I’m the, I guess, editor of the site,” the characteristically humble Kim says. (To be clear, he is most definitely the site’s editor.) Like the other staffers, Kim, 25, views his role at Know Your Meme as an extension of his academic background. “I think my background in journalism,” he says, “has helped me to shape the objective and factual tone of language that’s become the norm within our community.”
Brennan, 26, has a master’s in library science and thinks of herself as a meme librarian—“the only one in the world,” she says, smiling. Caldwell, meanwhile, studied anthropology at Rutgers and calls himself a “digital anthropologist.”
Those three steer a vast, rowdy ship of more than 165,000 users who, as Kim freely admits, are absolutely essential to the site’s success. Know Your Meme operates like a traditional hierarchical encyclopedia welded together with the freewheeling crowdsourcing of Wikipedia.
The birth of a typical entry goes something like this: Someone witnesses a notable event on the Internet and decides to write a post about it. A staffer then comes along, confirms what they can using a combination of refined Google searches and the Internet Archive, and either marks the meme as confirmed or sends it to “deadpool,” a purgatory for the unproven or downright fictional. Staffers also write posts themselves, if they think the community has missed something important. They aim to publish six to eight confirmed entries a day.
With 1,300 confirmed entries and 3,000 total submissions, there’s a good chance that, if it happened on the Internet and it’s important, Know Your Meme has written about it.
By any standard, Know Your Meme boasts one of the most underwhelming encyclopedia names in history.
Before encyclopedias were called encyclopedias they were called a lot of other things: Roman scholar Pliny titled his first century A.D. compendium Natural History. Medieval German nun Herrad of Landsberg named hers Garden of Delights. (The “delights” included illustrations of gutted and gored sinners roasting in hell.) Other fine examples include On the Universe, The Great Comprehensive Universal Lexicon, and On the Characteristics of Things.
The ancient Greek phrase enkyklios paideia, or “comprehensive education,” provides the foundation for the word “encyclopedia” itself. Paul Scalich, a German writer, was the first to use the term to describe a book—his 1559 tome, Encyclopaedia; or, Knowledge of the World of Disciplines, Not Only Sacred but Profane.
The Internet’s vast cultural revolution spawned Wikipedia, Know Your Meme, and dozens of other digital encyclopedias. Likewise, the Enlightenment, the Britannica tells us, “brought such an upheaval in the human concept of the world that the time was ripe for further experiments in the form of the encyclopaedia.” The works became ever more comprehensive and, perhaps more importantly, alphabetized, so people could more easily navigate their vast contents. Frenchman Denis Diderot published his landmark Encyclopaedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts in 1751. Two decades later Smellie finally completed the Encyclopedia Britannica—the “British Encyclopedia,” the definitive English-language compendium for more than 200 years.
Encyclopedias had fair cause for grandiose titles. Their authors often saw the works as reflections of the worlds from which they sprang and as tools for bettering society. That was explicitly the case in Vincent of Beauvais’s masterpiece The Great Mirror. The French scholar believed his complete compendium of medieval knowledge “showed the world what it is and what it should become.”
That’s what Know Your Meme does. It’s the Internet’s mirror. It shows the people of the Internet where they’ve been, and perhaps more importantly, where they’re going.
It cost £200 to publish the first Britannica. But Know Your Meme was pretty much free. Like so many other products of the Internet, it was born from the musings of of a bunch of bored people sitting around at work—in this case, the Flatiron offices of Web video pioneer Rocketboom in 2007.
“We’d sit around talking about internet memes all day,” recalls Kenyatta Cheese, 39, Rocketboom’s chief operating officer at the time. “We’d sit there and try to figure out where things originated. We just fucking geeked out about all of that about the history of things online.”
Cheese and fellow cofounders Jamie Wilkinson, Elspeth Rountree, and Rocketboom CEO Andrew Baron, had watched as Web culture creeped into the mainstream, especially at places like Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. But “none of it was being credited to the sites and cultures and communities where they originated,” Cheese says.
In December of that year, Rocketboom’s host Joanne Colan was unable to finish the current season. The company’s small staff suddenly had more time on their hands. The result was a flurry of explainer videos—10 over a period of just two weeks—that began with One Take and ended in “Crank That Soulja Boy.” The characters in the videos donned lab coats because, according to Cheese, “it was a great way to show authority without having to prove anything.”
At the same time, Wilkinson—on his own—had been building a database of every meme he’d ever found as a personal reference tool. The combination of the videos and the database naturally evolved into the website, which the company registered on Nov. 17, 2007. The videos also set the tone for the site’s style as a whole: an unlikely marriage between irreverent humor and a devotion to facts that was perfect for explaining the Internet to a mainstream audience.
“It had to be entertaining,” Cheese explains. “If you want the syrup to go down you need a sugar pill.”
Rocketboom’s staff knew that chronicling the Internet was too large a task for just a few people, and so from the beginning they also had to figure out a way to crowdsource the site’s content. Cheese notes that Wikipedia was often bogged down by a user-created bureaucracy, which ironically created a high barrier for entry. “There aren’t schools teaching this stuff,” Cheese says. “We had to find ways to value experience over expertise. If we let people make small contributions then everyone’s small contributions could add up if we did the heavy work—piece it together, fact check it.”
Photo of Kenyatta Cheese and Jamie Wilkinson by Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons
Know Your Meme quickly took off and began hiring interns to fill in its staffing holes, including Kim, Caldwell, and Brennan. By early 2011, both Cheese and Wilkinson had left, and the former interns stepped up to take control. Just a few months later, Internet entrepreneur and LOLcat aficionado Ben Huh acquired the site, making it one arm of his massive Cheezburger Network.
At the time, Huh’s company was the target of criticism from places like 4chan, which saw Cheezburger’s appropriation of images and memes as an attempt to profit off the Internet’s free and often anti-corporate culture. (When Huh gave a presentation at this year’s ROFLcon, a group of hecklers proved so disruptive that organizers had no choice but to kick them out.)
It’s important to note that Know Your Meme wasn’t the first site to comprehensively chronicle the Internet. Encyclopedia Dramatica, “a radically profane and disturbing nightmare vision of Wikipedia,” has been doing the same thing since 2004. The site, often called simply ED, is a Wiki penned by the people who actually generate a lot of Web culture—hardcore denizens of places like 4chan. Primed for shock value and loaded with racism, misogyny, and gore, the best ED articles are masterpieces of trolldom, satirically chronicling the exploits of Anonymous and 4chan. In that sense, ED more perfectly reflects the subterranean online worlds from which much of the last decade of Internet culture bubbled up.
ED’s entry on Know Your Meme is scathing. “Know Your Meme is clearly intended for mass commercialization of every ‘cute’ meme that ever sprang forth from a *chan,” it reads. “It’s also mostly safe for work, which is fucking lame.” While the criticisms are biting, they also speak to the truth of Know Your Meme’s present and future success: Your parents may turn away screaming from ED, but they can lose themselves for hours at Know Your Meme.
Back at Marketfish’s Manhattan conference room, I ask the Know Your Meme editors if they think their work is important.
“We have different explanations of what we do depending on the audience,” Kim says. “To my mom, I’m just the dude who blogs for a living.”
“When someone won’t understand,” contributes Brennan, “I just say I watch cat videos all day.”
Kim continues: “When it’s the right people or circle of people, we take it seriously. We take it very very seriously.”
The “right circle” is continuously growing. Anonymous’s cultural influence is an early harbinger of our Web-defined future—a sign that Internet culture is leaving behind its niche, that it’s no longer gently influencing the mainstream but merging with it entirely. In the United States alone, the number of people with Internet access increased from 85 million in 1998 to 245 million in 2011. Smartphones put the Internet in your pocket. Your mom and dad aren’t just on Facebook; they’re sharing memes on your wall.
Know Your Meme staffers are starting to dream big. As the Marketfish logo looms over us in their conference room, they talk of expanding into a pure research institution, leaving behind the vestiges of a media company for the purity of data and facts and scholarship. They mention Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society as a structural model and wax hopeful about joining forces with the Internet Archive, the world’s only digital library of the Internet.
Brennan says she hopes the site will become a map for the future, so that generations to come “will be able to look back and figure out why we turned out the way we did.”
After our interview finishes, Caldwell finally has time to work on that mysterious entry they’d all first discussed hours ago—the Internet’s reaction to the Nicole Westbrook music video “Thanksgiving,” first released on YouTube on Nov. 7, and the latest inheritor to the Rebecca Black love-to-hate-it legacy.
Caldwell’s post goes live shortly thereafter. One of the earliest comments is from a Know Your Meme user bearing the pseudonym “Bill Clinton”:
“Everyone will forget about this by next week,” it reads.
That’s pretty much true of everything on the Internet. But if you ever want to remember, you’ll always know where to look.
Illustration via Jason Reed