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SXSW: Can the Internet and popular culture be friends?

Know Your Meme

So I got a tip at the press brunch today that Charlie Sheen was making a surprise appearance at the Interactive portion of South by Southwest in Austin, brought in by Ad.ly, the company that pays big bucks to celebrities to place adds in their Twitter streams.  Celebrity tweets. (Sheen is their hottest client).

Wait! Don’t click away yet!

I promise this isn’t yet another story story about Sheen, who the Ad.ly P.R. rep told me wouldn’t be here anyway when I called for confirmation. Sheen, however, served as a rare instance of when Internet and pop culture merged seamlessly, at the SXSW Know Your Meme panal discussion, "On Popular Culture and the Internets." (And yes, Internets is plural, because that’s how the kids say it.)

Hosted by Rocketboom CEO Andrew Baron, and Brad Kim and Don Caldwell of Know Your Meme, the panel, all young guys who have Internet culture — and I hate to use this word but it’s totally apt — literally down to a science. And they should, they’ve been doing this for a while. Internet news and entertainment channel Rocketboom launched the Know Your Meme wiki in 2007 — that’s a bajillion in Internet years.

The thing Baron said makes Sheen "unique" — and I’ll keep this short — is that he’s managed to grab hold of all the fun the Internet’s had with his manic "20/20" interview, and harness it in his favor with his video show and sweet Ad.ly deal on Twitter. You see, it’s rare, though increasingly less so, that Internet and popular culture get along.

To illustrate, the panel opened with Jennifer Aniston’s Smart Water commercial, which winkingly jams references to Internet culture, including lip-syncing YouTube kid Keenan Cahill, Double Rainbow guy, 'dirty dancing' babies and lots and lots of puppies — the gag being, they're making a "viral" video. While this commercial is successful as far as clicks are concerned (6 million and counting)  the Internet obsessives attending at the Know Your Meme found it to be "FAIL!"

"Trying too hard" and a "It’s bottled water" were two of the responses shouted when the panel asked why the commercial didn’t work. By contrast, most everyone begrudgingly agreed that Old Spice Guy is original, and a success, even though, as Baron described, it was the video you hated to forward, because it’s a commercial.

So what makes the difference between these two commercials obviously developed with the goal of going viral?

Tracking that subtlety is what Know Your Meme does, using time signatures and meta data to record the history and growth of an Internet meme. As the panel pointed out, Richard Dawkins coined "meme" in 1976 in his book, "The Selfish Gene," applying evolutionary principals to ideas that spread through culture. Internet memes may start with a video, unaltered and uploaded to YouTube — for example, Charlie Sheen’s "20/20" interview (sorry). Then the source material begins to mutate – people edit videos, make funny Sheen pictures, etc.

"We don’t like to think of meme as a classification of culture," Caldwell said. Instead, it’s looking at culture as if it has a life. "It produces, it replicates," and its life cycle can be documented.

Not to make it sound as if the panel was dry — like the memes they discussed — it was often hilarious and sometimes NSFW. "Hitler Reacts," those YouTube videos in which subtitles to the movie "Downfall" are changed to make Hitler angry about ridiculous things, such as the iPad or whatever, is an example of Internet and popular culture not getting along. Constantine, the movie company behind "Downfall" doesn't get the joke in the least, and continues to do its best to get those videos yanked. (Odds are not in their favor.)

Instances of the Internets obsessiveness were illustrated with Bear Grylls, star of "Man vs. Wild," and the fact that he has, on occasion, drunk his own urine.

In the end, Charlie Sheen served to illustrate another gulf between Internet and pop culture. Unlike stars who become the subject of an Internet meme, people who blow up on the Internet rarely last in the real world. In fact, there's only one star out there who found life beyond viral fame: YouTube prodigy Justin Beiber —and even he had help from Usher.

See, I told you this wasn't about Charlie Sheen.

More from SXSW:

 Helen A.S. Popkin is going to a SXSW party in which LOLCats are the driving theme ... for work. As you (and Helen's boss) can clearly ascertain via Facebook and Twitter, she is hard at work at SXSW, chugging coffee and writing blog posts.