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Yo Kanye, I'mma let you have the best meme of all

One of the surest ways to pop a vein in your head is to overthink a meme.

Why, for instance, is the Internet flooded with riffs on Kanye West's infamous awards-show implosion? Why has this supplanted a video of a cat playing the piano? Why ask why? You'll bring yourself confusion and grief, and waste valuable time that you could have spent photoshopping pictures of Kanye West.

Last Sunday, of course, this peculiar singer stormed the stage during an awards show. He grabbed the mic from the fresh-faced young country star named Taylor Swift, and made a pronouncement.

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"Yo Taylor. I'm really happy for you. I'mma let your finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!"

That is what he said. History, hearing itself being made, gave a little shudder.

It didn't take long for someone to realize that there was gold hidden in there. Within hours, a video appeared on YouTube that mashed up Barack Obama's speech on health care - which itself was infamously interrupted by a congressman who yelled "You lie!" - with the Kanye West debacle.

"The reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally," says Obama, lecturing a joint session of congress in the remixed video.

"I'mma let your finish," cries Kanye West, from off camera, "but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!"

Congress erupts into jeers. "It's not true," glowers Obama.

This video, needless to day, did gangbusters business on YouTube, to the tune of 3.5 million views in just a few days. More to the point, though, it marked that transcendental moment when a joke becomes a meme; the moment when the collective realizes that a line that makes people laugh can be applied to other situations.

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Soon, the Web was flooded with image-edited knock-offs.

"Yo Patrick Swayze! I know you just died and all, and I'mma let you finish, but Michael Jackson's death was the best one this year."

"Yo Finland! I'm really happy and I'mma let you finish, but Norway is one of the best Nordic countries of all time!"

"Yo Keyboard Cat, I'm really happy for you and I'mma let you finish, but Kanye West is now the newest meme of all time."

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And so he was. Websites popped up, devoted entirely to cataloging the fad . The new meme combined with older memes to make meta-memes.

"In Soviet Russia," read one, "Taylor Swift interrupts you." (The Soviet Russia meme involves saying things backwards, an homage to a Yakoff Smirnoff routine in which - oh, never mind.)

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What's most remarkable about this is the speed with which it happened. We're used to seeing a meme bubble up from the Web's danker crevices, spreading from site to site over a period of months until it hits a tipping point and becomes unavoidable.

But once Kanye West opened his trap and bequeathed a pop-culture moment upon us, it was as if everyone sprang to meme action stations. We've had the drills; we know what to do.

By now, people can recognize the pattern: First, the initial event. Then, the first remix. Then, the deluge, and the website that tracks the deluge. Next comes commentary the chin-scratching commentariat, and then the backlash against all the attention that's being paid to a ridiculous Internet fad. (Readers! That's your cue!) It used to take months, if not years, to pass all these check-points. Now, we've got this down to a week. If we get any better at this, we'll be able to pass a meme within a day, like a 24-hour flu.

What all of this suggests to me is that there's a learning process going on. Internet dwellers have had plenty of practice with memes now. People know how to spot them. People know how to join then. Like any collective action, different people play different roles: the creators, the aggregators, the distributors. This is becoming a well-oiled machine.

And the fact that we can convert news into a meme so quickly means that the meme can sometimes carry the news faster than the news itself can. The pattern so far has been news first, meme second. But if memes keep emerging this quickly, then they could give news sources a run for their money.

If - whether by neglect or optimistically willful ignorance - you'd somehow missed the news that Kanye West had made a jackass of himself at an awards show, or that Obama had been interrupted while giving a speech, or even that poor Patrick Swayze had passed on, this could have filled you in.

It's true. Only when word went surging around the Internet that "I'mma" is now a printable contraction that I tuned in to what was going on with Mr. West's career.

Remember the gnashing of teeth when it was discovered that a striking number of young people were getting their news from satirical late-night outlets like The Daily Show? The day may come when even Jon Stewart is beat out by a well-timed meme in certain key demographics.

Douglas Adams once observed that the only thing that travels faster than light is bad news, but he didn't take into account the properties of a hastily photoshopped cat.

I think I just heard a pop.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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