Twenty four hours is a long time in today’s interconnected, intertubed world. Once upon a time a throwaway, smart-arse remark by a panelist on a political TV chat show would take days to grow into a meme, relying on being quoted in newspaper columns and replayed on evening news. But in the age of Twitter it takes only 24 hours for that smart-arse remark to go from being uttered on Insiders to being printed on a T-shirt and plastered all over the blogosphere.

It was a really funny comment, though.

ANNABEL CRABB: Can we be realistic about what’s going on here. This is the pointy end of the lobbying process for a piece of legislation that’s waiting, having it’s fate decided in the Senate, right? Everybody involved is bringing out their best material, you know, and whether it’s Peter Garrett flee your homes or whether it’s (motions to Bolt) you know …

ANDREW BOLT: You’re right, but I think there’s a wider thing happening here in the psychology of the debate. I think the scaremongering has got to such absurd levels, absurd levels, that a lot of people even if they believe as you do in the theory and all that are sceptical.

CRABB: I’m not a practitioner in this debate like you are, all I’m saying is …

BOLT: You don’t believe it? I thought you did …

CRABB: … well, you’re a lobbyist too …

BOLT: … let me finish my point please.

CRABB: … you are!

BOLT: I’m a sceptic! I am! But the point is there are so many scares around: there’s apocalyptic fires, run for your lives the seas are coming, everything …

BARRIE CASSIDY: At both extremes of the debate to be fair.

CRABB: … I mean you post stuff on your blog that’s, you know, a new study from the University of East Bumcrack about, you know, penguins still being alive in …

Theorists contend that memes spread and grow through a process of natural selection, and it was the Twitter community that naturally selected Crabb’s “University of East Bumcrack”,  and elevated it instantly to meme status. While the internet has not created more smart-arses, it has given smart-arses the means to gather in virtual meeting places and be smart-arses collectively. Within minutes of the official opening of UniCrack by Crabb, Twitter was abuzz with chatter about this august institution, and within hours some smart-arse had started a fake Twitter account while another smart-arse was offering for sale University of East Bumcrack T-shirts. Less than 24 hours later the University of Bumcrack had entered meme folklore and was being perpetuated by smart-arse websites.

A meme is a discrete unit or idea that, through its repetition, transmits something deeper than the words, sounds or images that make up the meme. Annabel Crabb’s comment was funny because “University of East Bumcrack” just sounds funny, but on another level it also perfectly tapped into the common belief that Andrew Bolt relies on whatever cherry-picked evidence from whatever random organisations he can find to prosecute his personal climate change-denying beliefs. The perfect meme is like a Pixar movie: there’s some cheap laughs for the kids on the surface and some slightly more complicated stuff hidden a bit deeper for the adults.

Like Twitter chatter, memes are transient and unlikely to enjoy long life spans; nobody will be talking about the University of East Bumcrack next week, and it’s unlikely many people will remember it by next year. But despite this, the meme served a purpose at a specific time and in a specific context and it has contributed in a very small way to a lot of people’s thinking.

Postscript: Lest Andrew Bolt accuse me, Twitter, Crikey or Tim Berners-Lee of pernicious bias by highlighting only Leftist memes, in the interests of balance Groupthink is also offering for sale these T-shirts. Proceeds from all the shirts plugged in this article will go to Mallala Hospital — Annabel Crabb’s chosen charity — so there’s no dirty capitalism at play either.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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