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Information Depth: Memes as Complex Information

J.Yoo's picture

In a characteristically styled entry, defines an internet meme as,

“A short phrase, picture, or combination of the two that gets repeated in message boards… for far, far longer than anything ever ought to be. Imagine a small child being surprised by a jack-in-the-box every single time the toy springs out and you'll have a fairly good idea of what the collective internet considers witty.”
While isn’t known for its accurate, or even helpful, information, people unacquainted with internet culture have expressed opinions like the one above. This begs the question: what is a meme? Even the savviest of internet inhabitants have a hard time pinning down a working definition. I’d like to propose, using the transcripts of Paul Grobstien’s “Information Update: Search for the Third Law” and Katherine Rowe’s “What is Information: Comparing Out Conceptual Maps and Investments,” to prove that internet memes (here on in referred to simply as ‘memes’) can be defined as one of the most complicated forms of information available on the internet.

Memes are often confused with virals. Both spread horizontally through cultural acquisition, growing exponentially in popularity depending on content and exposure, but a viral’s content remains unchanged, while a meme has the ability evolve. For example, “Emerson – Mommy’s Nose is Scary!”(links below) was released on March 14 of this year, already has nearly 13 million views on, and was picked up by several bloggers, video bloggers, and news sites, including
But, as you may have noticed, each reposting of the video is exactly the same. There is no change. There is nothing you can do to this video without altering the content and losing the original content and charm.

An example of a meme, on the other hand, is something like Keyboard Cat, as explained by’s Youtube channel, rocketboom.



While Keyboard Cat is a segment of the widely known viral video “Cool Cat,” it’s ability to be mix with other ideas without losing its central idea is what establishes it as a meme.  In this case, this means that any other video can tag Keyboard Cat at the end to convey a message that this person has failed. Hard.


One of the articles we read for class was a transcript of Paul Grobstein’s April 29th talk during the 2004 Brown Bagged Lunch Conversation series on the translation and reception of information. Following are a few excerpts.

“With Information, which is fundamentally dependent on a decoder, may actually be defined as that which is transformed, with some degree of predictability, by a decoder… Information only exists, then, if there is a decoder--but does the decoder have to exist in actuality, or only potentially? We found the distinction between potential and actual information a useful one, along with the notion that new decoders can enable us to switch from the first to the second category…
“Discussion concluded with a range of observations about how complexity is best defined, not by its end state, but rather by the complications involved in "getting there"; according to a range of theories (including Kalmogorov's) complexity is most effectively measured in relation to its history. The effort to come up with a measure of how difficult it is to make something, starting w/ randomness, relates to the number of steps it takes in time…”

I understood this article to mean that the complexity of a piece of information is based on the number of codings used on the original idea to read the end state, plus the final translation from potential (unknown, not yet understood) information to actual (known, understood) information. When combined with a few excerpts from Katherine Rowe’s January 29th talk (part of the same series) about noise and information,

“Katherine opened consideration of the terms "noise" and "information" by calling attention to a concept in linguistics regarding the "basic economy of response" needed for a conversation to be socially functional. Language is intelligible if speaker and listener "connect," if what one says is "not heard as a non sequitur" by the other…
“Noise, as we came to define it, innately has no structure; it is noise only until we see-- learn to distinguish--a pattern in it. We found ourselves taking care in theorizing noise as "originary sound"; much of noise is composed, and we have a sense, in listening to it, of belatedly re-making patterns out of something someone else has already made sense of, that which is already pre-scripted and processed. “If the initiator of the conversation has a particular thought in mind, a response may sound like noise, if it doesn't follow the original speaker's train of thought.”

One form of coding seems to be communication between a speaker and a listener, during and after which the translation of understanding takes place. This is when the idea passes from noise to information.

Also of note: if the speaker expects a certain reply from the receiver, further information may be received as noise. I’m assuming the reverse is also true, that if the receiver expects certain information from the speaker, the original message may also be heard as noise.

So, every piece of information has a complexity, states of 'potential' and 'actual' information, and the possibility of being heard as noise or information. Let's string these together to form two theories:

      1. An idea passes from potential information to actual information when a receiver decodes the idea from noise to information.

      1. The complexity of an idea equals the number of translations/codings/decodings it takes for the idea to pass from Potential Information (PI) to Actual Information (AI).

For example, let's say runs an article about the situation in Libya. The author had to first witness the event, presumably taking notes at the same time, then type it up on his computer and email it to an editor. The editor would then go over the raw article for quick fixes and other alterations, then upload it to the site, where a reader would find the article and read it. Assuming the reader understood the information, the original idea took (by my count, yours might be different) six translations to reach a receiver: original event, notes, first draft, editor, website, reader.

Continuing with this system, the more translations an idea goes through to reach AI state, the more complex it is. So, the same idea can have a different number of translations depending on what form it takes; a TV or news report may only take four translations, while a newspaper article could take fewer still.

Let's apply this system to a few memes, taken from the front and second page of on Wednsday, March 30th.


Example #1: Keyboard Cat in Acrylic



If we apply this formula, 12 translations took place before you could understand the meaning of the painting:

      1. Charlie Schmidt had his cat, Fatso, play an electric keyboard in 1986.

      2. Charlie Schmidt recorded his cat, Fatso, playing the electric keyboard, translating the idea onto a VHS.

      3. Charlie Schmidt converted the VHS data into another digital form, presumably .avi or .mp4 

      4. Charlie Schmidt, under username chuckieart, uploaded the video onto

      5. Youtuber Brad O’Farrell took a clip of Cool Cat and used it in a video of his own.

      6. Various forums and message boards picked up the idea and repeated it themselves. This could be made into an infinite number of translations, since we don't know how many people the meme passed through before it found the artist who made this painting, so let's condense this into one translation.

      7. The redditor's mother, let's call her Redditor1's mother, saw and understood the meme, possibly with the help of her child and other references. 

      8. Redditor1's mother used Keyboard Cat as the subject of her painting 

      9. Redditor1's mother took a picture of her finished work

      10.  Redditor1 uploaded his mother's picture to 

      11. I saw the image and posted it on serendip. This step also includes all the previous people who saw the image and upvoted it to the front page, where I found it.

      12. You saw the image and understood the meme, putting it into the AI state, for you.

This simple meme-on-canvas took a full six further translations than the CNN news article.


Example #2: An Instance of the Yo Dawg Meme

Link:, because the full picture would probably take up the rest of this web event. For those unfamiliar with the Yo Dawg meme, there is a link to a helpful Know Your Meme video report on the subject below.

So, let's use the formula again:

      1.  Xzibit, one of the hosts of the MTV show Pimp my Ride, acts out a segment with the rest of the cast.

      2.  The segment is filmed, translating it to video data.

      3.  The segment is edited.

      4.  The segment is converted into another digital form.

      5.  The segment is aired on TV.

      6.  Someone (because it's almost always impossible to track the first person to use a meme) made an image macro (explained in the Know Your Meme video report).

      7.  The same person posted the macro on a forum or image board.

      8.  Others picked up the meme and repeated it, spread it to others. Again, this step could be stretched out infinitely, since we don't know how to track the spread of the meme until it hit the redditor who posted this particular macro, so let's say it's just one, large translation.

      9.  The redditor who saw the meme, let's call him Redditor2, understood the meme.

      10.  Redditor2 made his own image macro, using various pictures found on the internet, and an image editing program

      11.  Redditor2 uploaded the image to S/he may have also run it through a file converter, but let's say the image was already in a compatible format since we don't know this for sure.

      12.  I saw the image and posted it on serendip. This step also includes all the previous people who saw the image and upvoted it to the front page of, where I found it.

      13.  You saw the image and understood the meme, putting it into the AI state, for you.

Thirteen translations, all to help you understand the Yo Dawg Meme. Aren't you lucky?

As with all formulas, this one isn't perfect: there are all the translations where internet users carried the meme to the two original posters featured here, the various translations are subjective (Does converting a file to another format count as a translation? What about re-uploading the same video on the same website, under a different name?), and other problems, but this is my interpretation.

And, as you can see, both memes took at least twice as many translations to reach the AI state as the CNN article. By these theories, this makes both memes at least twice as complex as the CNN article.



Transcript of Paul Grobstein’s talk : /local/scisoc/brownbag/brownbag0304/grobstein2.html

Transcript of Katherine Rowe’s talk: /local/scisoc/brownbag/brownbag0304/rowe.html

Rocketboom's Yo Dawg video report:



Liz McCormack's picture

the theory of memes

I enjoyed learning about internet memes.  I was intrigued by your theory which you used to account for the varying degrees of complexity found in internet postings using a common meme.  The number of translations between coders and decoders increases the complexity as various new interpretations, additional information, would be added each time to the rendition.  It was great to see how your theory raised additional new question too.   Every good theory should.  I wonder if there can be translations that simplify?  Or is this ruled out by your theory?  I wonder too how one might test this, i.e., investigate this question?   Your theory brings to mind the notion of entropy, and the fact that it tends to increase in any given system.  One definition of entropy is that it is a measure of the amount of randomness or anti-information in a system.  This might be an interesting direction to pursue.