by Keidra Chaney
Memes aren’t what they used to be. What was once shared and participatory, now seems to be increasingly top down and audience driven. Look at Grumpy Cat: meme turned brand. Even the doge meme, as charming as it was, seemed to be angling towards something more commercial in nature. It’s expected at this point that a meme becomes something you’ll see at a SXSW booth inevitable. It’s been such a sad state of affairs for good, bottom-up egalitarian pop culture memes that TLF decided to skip our yearly recap of favorite memes in 2013.
Enter the Hail Hydra meme. First off, the best thing about the “Hail Hydra” is meme is how seemingly random it is. Inspired by a brief scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where a secondary characters leans over and whispers “Hail Hydra” in evil solidarity. It’s not a throwaway scene, but not an iconic one either. And yet, the evening after I saw the film, I saw this on Twitter:
then this on Facebook:
then this on G+:
In Limor Shifman’s book, Memes in Digital Culture (reviewed here) Shifman presents the idea of the three factors that facilitate the spread of viral and memetic content: 1.) simplicity, 2.) humor and 3.) access to tools of participation. Its been very long time since I’ve seen a meme, a simple, humorous, non-commercial meme, grow so quickly and on so many platforms in real time. Probably the last time it happened was the “Binders Full of Women meme of 2012. It actually made me nostalgic, if you will, for a simpler time on the Internet, where memes played more of a role of common language or in-joke within a community than potential brand platform. Memes were born, circulated widely and quickly, and died before overstaying their welcome. It was… refreshing to see something so clever, participatory and (seemingly) random happen online from fans of the movie just having fun.
As online culture become more and more audience-centric, organized, and top-down, I wonder if moments like this are now the exception rather than the rule. I admit, I even wondered if the meme itself was orchestrated by Paramount or Marvel as some kind of viral marketing push, because that’s where we are at now. I don’t think it is, though I would not at all be surprised if it isn’t. Either way, the fact that I don’t know begs the question how much room is left for participatory fan culture in a hyper-branded online world.