planking and a short history of “internet memes”

Planking, old school style

Kids these days, huh? ”So … u guys just lay down in unusual places?” inquires Isaac Pueblita, of Mexico City, on the Facebook page ”Planking Australia”, which has more than 144,000 members. ”It is so dangerous …” replies a concerned Sahabaj Ahamed, of Mumbai.

To understand the frenzy over ”planking” – the phenomenon of lying face down in unusual places, having your photo taken and posting it to a social networking website – you need to understand the rich history of ”internet memes”.

Richard Dawkins popularised the term ”meme” (pronounced to rhyme with ”cream”) in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to describe the way cultural ideas and behaviours transmit within a society. Memes are the cultural equivalent of genes, following the same self-replicating pattern. Successful memes spread quickly and widely. The term ”internet meme” refers to ideas or concepts that spread via the internet.

Internet memes replicate when people send links to each other, via email, facebook or other social networking sites, to unusual or funny source material, such as a picture or video. Memes can simply be funny videos, or can morph into games where people seek to imitate or replicate the original theme, but with a twist.

For example, within hours of the royal wedding of Kate and William, a Facebook group was established named ”Princess Beatrice’s ridiculous Royal Wedding Hat’‘. It now has 142,268 members, some of whom enjoy doctoring and posting photos of celebrities and political leaders wearing Beatrice’s bizarre beige hat (Osama bin Laden looks particularly fetching).

The first internet meme ever is widely accepted to be a computer-generated image of a 3D baby dancing in a nappy, cha-cha style. This first ”viral video” spread by email in 1996 and was featured on the American TV series Ally McBeal.

The advent of the video-sharing website YouTube only accelerated this transmission of internet memes. Cheap recording devices have also made it easier to capture moments on camera, while social networking sites enable people to share the vision more rapidly.

It is hard to predict the next meme. Source material is usually funny, out of the ordinary or just plain bizarre. Cute, furry animals – like the LOL (laugh out loud) cats or the dramatic chipmunk – often feature, as do cute babies. There’s the baby dancing to the hit Beyonce video Single Ladies, the babies standing in a kitchen having a ”conversation”, or the simple vision, posted by a father, of his baby laughing hysterically as he rips paper.

Unknown souls have been plucked from obscurity to become overnight stars, such as the young fan of Britney Spears who posted a teary video titled Leave Britney Alone, or the Californian hippie Paul ”Bear” Vasquez who became an instant sensation after he posted another tear-soaked video capturing his overwhelming delight at seeing a double rainbow ”all the way” in his front yard near Yosemite National Park (please watch it).

The death of a young Queensland man this week during an attempted ”plank” on a balcony handrail is particularly sad, given the light-hearted intention of the meme. But planking wasn’t the first viral internet sensation, and it won’t be the last.


322,990,348* (*Numbers increase constantly, correct on May 20.)
Number of views on YouTube of the video Charlie Bit My Finger featuring two young British brothers – the most-watched YouTube video.

$US11.5 million
Start-up funding provided to the investors of YouTube by the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital in late 2005, early 2006.

$US1.65 billion
Price paid by Google for YouTube in November 2006.

$US30 million
Funding secured by Cheezburger to expand its humour websites, including, which features cats with funny captions.

Number of views of the JK Wedding video which features the wedding party dancing down the aisle.

Months of research the actor Bruno Ganz did to prepare for his role of Hitler in Downfall, a clip from which became an internet meme.

Number of views on YouTube of the British singer Susan Boyle’s 2009 audition for Britain’s Got Talent.

Age of singer Rick Astley, the subject of a prank called “Rickrolling” where people are tricked into watching his song Never Gonna Give You Up.

Number of countries in which “Dancing Matt” has filmed himself dancing in front of famous sites, posting a montage on YouTube.

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