On Harlem Shake and memes

Here we go again…

You survived the Gangnam Style craze. You actually saw the video and some of its spin-offs. Maybe you even learned some of the movements. When someone mentioned Psy, or the song, or whistled the tune, you could nod knowingly.

As the phenomenon started fading away, you breathed a big sigh of relief… only for your co-workers or fellow commuters to start talking about another internet craze: the Harlem Shake. Much like Gangnam style before it, the Harlem Shake is a song that turned into an internet phenomenon leading on to numerous videos on YouTube.

Phenomena like the spin-offs of the Harlem Shake and Gangham Style songs, the Old Spice advert or the ‘Blendtec – will it blend?’ campaign, are known as memes. A ‘meme’ is knowledge – e.g., a concept or some form of content – that spreads (quickly) from person to person. It is not a ‘new’ phenomenon. Memes have always existed. Concepts and ideas have always spread among people (through conversations, observations, etc) until they become part of our patterns of behaviours and our commonly held beliefs. However, the Internet has amplified the reach of memes, and accelerated the speed with which they spread.

A meme spreads because it catches someone’s attention (e.g., it is particularly funny or unusual) and that person sees value in sharing it. As discussed here, we share out of altruism (i.e., we believe it will be useful to others) or narcissism (i.e., we believe it will enhance our image).

This sharing of resources – the memes – helps the development of social bonds between members of a social network (your family, your friends, your coworkers…). That is, it provides a sense of belonging and solidarity. Sharing memes also helps members of the social network to stay informed of current events and, possibly, to solve a specific problem. The exchange of mutual support (be it in the form of bonding and belonging, or in the form of information) translates into social capital. We can think of ‘social capital’ as the investment that we make in social relations with the expectation of obtaining a benefit.

So, it turns out that memes actually pay an important social function. Staying abreast of developing memes helps you stay informed, and information can help you solve practical problems). It also helps you bond with members of the social network, thus providing a sense of belonging and fomenting solidarity… – even when the bonding is centred on ‘hating’ the meme.

Do you find yourself checking in on Harlem Shake (or the like) so that you can join in the conversation?

8 thoughts on “On Harlem Shake and memes

  1. Interesting question, Ana, as always. I did search the web yesterday to find out more about this new phenomenon called the Harlem Shake. I like to think it is out of curiosity more than anything else, but there might be a bit of being able ‘to join the conversation’ in it. Maybe even more than I like to admit.
    However, I don’t see myself participate in it. I think it’s interesting indeed to figure out how these memes actually contribute to social capital. And what it means for social cohesion, or maybe how the life cycle of a meme can be translated into using social media/the internet to get results.
    I found it very interesting to learn from this post that memes actually play an important social function. However, some of my Facebook ‘friends’ share more low-level memes than I care for. If that’s all you do, I don’t really see the value it can bring to your social network. A bit of fun now and then, should be beneficial, though.


    1. Yes, there is an issue with attention scarcity – it is very difficult to be heard among all the noise of videos going around. I supposed that what made me notice it was when it started being mentioned by people that do not usually flood my Facebook or Twitter stream with too much ‘noise’.


      1. I think this is also one of the digital age skills we need to learn (and teach?): using the appropriate filters to find the things that are interesting and only be mildly distracted by the ‘noise’. This is one of the reasons I like the lists function of Twitter so much.


  2. I also had not heard of the Harlem Shake – it makes me feel a little old and out of it to not be part of these amazing phenomena….

    In my feed today I saw the speedo brand getting in on the buzz.

    Sadly, its lame – given the ‘imagery’ of Speedos I think the Speedo Harlem Shake could have been far more engaging.



    1. I confess: I am not ‘in’. I only came across this meme because I was approached by a journalist to comment on it. It is a job hazard, I suppose 🙂

      As for the Speedo one… I am with you. Disappointing effort.


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