Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.
Canadian born actor Ryan Gosling is one of Hollywood’s hotties-of-the-moment. When I was a kid, it was Clooney, so that should both date me and/or show the vapidity of such a title.
A little while back, a photo-caption meme based on a number of Gosling still shots started to develop on the ‘net, initially collected in the form of the crassly titled tumblr site F*** Yeah Ryan Gosling. At one point, Gosling himself addressed these sites when asked about them in an MTV interview, and he seemed quite amused with it all. The interview caused interest in the meme to spike, spawning a number of copycat Gosling sites (mostly tumblr accounts). They include but are not limited to: the self-consciously pedantic Neuroscientist Ryan Gosling and Feminist Ryan Gosling, the dark humor of Serial Killer Ryan Gosling, as well as the tamer Librarian Ryan Gosling.
This strange development illustrates one of the keys of meme: re-appropriation. Re-appropriation means taking something and using it for something it wasn’t necessarily intended for. With memes, we feel we have full right to re-appropriate anything in whatever means we choose, be it a music video, public figure, or whatever else. Any and all re-appropriations are allowed and encouraged.
Anyone with photo editing software is allowed to put words in Gosling’s mouth. Usually starting with the phrase, “Hey girl,” Gosling gets imbued with superhuman sensitivity and doctorate-level intellect, or maybe with awkward or creepy one-liners, or sometimes just sappy sentimentalism. With the right digital tools at hand, we’re allowed to remake Gosling into whoever we want him to be.
Why do we feel we are allowed this? Why do we feel we have the right to re-appropriate anything we want in the digital realm, even an entire person? I think for a couple of reasons:
The switch to digital media has led us to believe we all own anything digital. The switch from physical media to digital ruined the idea of ownership on the ‘net. The Napster generation has seen that anything (art, especially) on the Internet can be accessed, therefore, at some level, it feels like it should be free. When anything on the Internet can be “owned” at the cost of a mouse click, respect for intellectual property gets lost along the way. So we now, in a sense, indirectly think that we own anything on the Internet. If an IMDB bio, YouTube vids, and still pics of Ryan Gosling exist on the ‘net for free, we therefore, in some sense, think we own Ryan Gosling and can re-appropriate him as we please.
The switch to digital media has made everything fully editable. If we own something we can adjust it to our tastes, and the digital world offer tons of tools (all for free or very, very cheap) with which we can edit and adjust these things we “own” very, very easily. So, if we own Ryan Gosling, and we can easily edit Ryan Gosling, you can be sure that we will do just that. One of the rules of the ‘net also seems to be: If something can be done, someone’s going to do it.
A couple of final notes for believers: Be careful with your assumption of digital ownership. It may be silly fun when it comes to Ryan Gosling memes, but things like music and video are someone’s livelihood (most likely someone who makes less money than you assume, by the way). And make sure that when you edit, you do it in such a way that someone would laugh with you during their MTV interview. Sometimes memes are people too.