Tom Johnson saw one of hundreds of cat photos circulating on the Web. Before long, he was taking pictures of his own cat — with a pancake on its head.
The Minneapolis man succumbed to one of the absurd Internet phenomena (or memes) that have been whizzing around the social media world faster than anyone can make sense of them.
A meme is an image, a video, a phrase or even an idea that catches on and spreads from one person to another for no logical reason. Popular memes include bursting into someone else’s photo, doing your own take on a viral video a la “Gangnam Style,” or, well, balancing a pancake on your cat’s head. The weirder the meme, the more copycats it attracts.
“I’m a fan of memes that are so stupid their humor has an almost transcendent quality,” said Johnson. “They’re so hard to explain to someone who hasn’t seen them, because they literally make no sense. ... They’re like inside jokes.”
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As long as there have been photos, people have been manipulating them. And we’ve been doing knock-off videos since the first camcorders came on the market. But social media have changed the speed and the reach of images that used to get a laugh from a small circle of friends or be the highlight of the family photo album.
“The ability to publish and share photos online allows us to connect to one another in real time, transcending geography,” said Lisa Grimm of Space150, a Minneapolis-based digital agency.
For Colin Hickey, who helped develop a hot new meme, “It’s a fun way to be a part of something bigger than yourself. With the Internet, you’re able to share a picture with someone on the other side of the world doing the same thing as you.”
But being connected is only part of the draw. The chance to be the next YouTube or Instagram sensation is driving people to get more, uh, creative with what they do in front of a camera. Here’s a look at a few of the latest photo fads:
• Photobombing (verb): becoming an uninvited participant in someone else’s photograph.
While living in New York, the photobombing of tourists quickly became a favorite pastime for Ashley Mattson, who now lives in Minneapolis. Tired of slogging through throngs of tourists posing for photos in Times Square, she started jumping into the background of their pictures and making goofy faces.
“Looking back on it, I feel kind of bad,” she said. “But hopefully they got a good laugh out of it.”
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is notorious for hamming it up in the background of the weekly team captains’ photo before each game. But humans aren’t the only photobombers. Plenty of animals have had their time to shine. In 2009, a Minnesota couple vacationing in Canada was attempting to take a self-portrait when a squirrel jumped in front of their camera. The image went viral, making the little critter the world’s most famous squirrel.
Even the president has been a victim. When Barack Obama visited a school in Florida last fall, one amorous little boy stole the spotlight. During a photo op with the class, the youngster was pictured in the background planting a kiss on the cheek of a classmate.
• Frosting (verb): photographing people engaging in warm-weather activities in a snowy environment.
Frosting went viral last winter after Missoula, Mont., resident John Brownell posted a picture of himself drinking coffee and reading a magazine in his robe outside, in several feet of snow. Friend Colin Hickey saw the photo, created a Facebook page, Frosters Anonymous, and “the whole town jumped on it,” he said. “Families were going outside and taking pictures, businesses were having frosting parties and the next thing I knew it was huge in Germany.”
• Remixes (noun): a popular video or photo that has been changed, added to and reposted to the Internet.
Some memes went viral because they were remixed, localized and re-shared. Remember “Gangnam Style”? Who could forget? The 2012 Korean dance pop single spawned hundreds of parodies and knockoff videos on YouTube, raking in more than 1 billion views.
Other popular remixes are of photos, not videos. “Texts From Hillary” is a single image of a serious-looking Hillary Rodham Clinton texting on her phone. The photo has been reproduced with dozens of silly captions and reposted. And reposted. And reposted.
“Today’s memes are a manifestation of the remix culture that’s permeating art, advertising and media right now,” said Weber Shandwick’s Greg Swan. “Many discount the impact on pop culture that (they) have, but I challenge you to find someone who doesn’t know the chorus of Rebecca Black’s ‘Friday.’ ”
• LOLCats (noun): Images and videos of cats, often accompanied by humorous text.
Grumpy looking cats. Babies laughing at cats. Cats playing ping-pong. While cat memes aren’t new, they are peculiar — and increasingly popular. According to KnowYourMeme.com, cat-related media took a leap forward beginning in 2006, with the growing influence of websites like LOLcats and Caturday.