Over the past month, Facebook has been taken over by the digital equivalent of pink eye–a highly contagious Internet meme titled “25 Random Things About Me.” Users use the Notes application to write posts comprised of 25 random facts about themselves–any random fact. They range from funny (“I would make an amazing superhero”) to random (“I love right angles”) to heartwarming (“I adore my baby brother”) to uncomfortably personal (“In seventh grade, the boys at my school started calling me butterface. I ended up switching schools the next year”). Upon finishing the list, the poster “tags” 25 friends, and then the cycle continues.
But what are these Internet memes, and why is this one so popular?
The word “meme” actually comes from a book written by Richard Dawkins, a science author most well-known for his books about evolution. Memes in Dawkins’ work parallel genes in that they are replications, but instead of DNA and RNA, memes replicate cultural ideas or themes. The term “internet meme” is used much more loosely to describe anything from a catchphrase to a viral video to a questionnaire that spreads quickly throughout the Internet. Chain emails were the first evolution of Internet memes, but we’ve since graduated to more sophisticated products–Obama Girl was an Internet meme, as is the classic bait and switch prank, Rickrolling. It’s easy to write memes off as fleeting, sometimes annoying fads of the digital era, but I feel there’s more to them. After all, the Internet is a big place with a lot of users and a lot of content. To make your way through all of that to the point that you’ve saturated our cultural material as much as, say, LOLCats is nothing short of incredible.
There’s no formula for a successful Internet meme; indeed, most of them happen by complete accident, as I’m sure is the case with this most recent Facebook meme. But I think there’s something here that might’ve helped the “25 Random Facts About Me” meme take off. It’s easy. Many memes involve long lists of obscure questions; others involve combing through your iTunes library. I can only imagine that they are just as, if not more, mind-numbing to complete than they are to read. 25 is a big number, but random facts are a dime a dozen, especially when in regards to one’s own life.
But Facebook memes (and, I would argue, this meme in particular) are indicative of two of the most pervasive trends of our Internet culture that are two sides of the same coin–narcissism and oversharing. Both have been documented problems on the Internet, most notably by Gawker writer Emily Gould in this article for The New York Times, so I won’t belabor the point. But suffice to say, the Internet is now being used to fuel our culture’s self-involvement to the point of awkward. After all, it’s one thing to spill-all in the physical world, over lunch with a friend or on the phone with your mom; it’s another to do it on Facebook where using the word “acquaintance” to describe your friend list can be a stretch. And maybe we should all think twice before sharing our “random” facts with the world. After all, Girl-Who-Dated-My-Best-Friend’s-Roommate-Two-Years-Ago, I didn’t really want to know that last summer, you went nine days without showering. That’s kind of gross.