All Your Memes Are Belong to Us
Austinites bloom where they're planted, and local meme-makers are here to help us laugh at ourselves
Albert Bui didn't mean to become an overnight sensation. All he was doing was goofing around on a Thursday night. But less than 48 hours after posting to Facebook his Judgmental Austin Map, a satirical visual guide to the various enclaves of culture here in the capital city, it had gone viral, the number of people sharing it via the click of a button mushrooming from the hundreds to the thousands. Soon, people were giggling about living among the "comfy fatties" of Circle C or the "overly practical gays" of Allandale, sheepishly acknowledging their participation in the compartmentalization of Austin.
The map was born out of an informal anthropological study of sorts. Bui, who spends most of the year in New York and summers in Austin, began to notice the changes in town over the course of a couple of years. "So many people have come to Austin, and people started living in little pockets, just like New York. Instead of it being UT people and then everybody else and then people in Westlake, each neighborhood is all very different now."
These observations were then overlaid onto a map of Austin, featuring a composite of the types of people Bui observed on his daily treks around the city. "I travel around Austin all day, looking for random stuff, all day, just driving all around," he says over a virgin cocktail at Contigo, itself emblematic of a certain Austin enclave. "I started noticing the differences between people and where they shop. That's where the H-E-B thing came in because, wherever you are in the day, you have to stop at H-E-B to get some random thing, and it's always a different [vibe]. If I'm on the Eastside, it's the super-scary one, then you go up north [to Burnet and Koenig] and that one's even weirder. The one down on Oltorf, people are trying to be fun and quirky and have weird hair. But we're all from Austin."
And that's why the Judgmental Map mushroomed: We're all from Austin and we all see a little bit of ourselves in that map, even though it might be a rather snarky interpretation of the city's cultural landscape and the colorful little enclaves that it comprises. The map became a meme because there was truth in its humor. "Memes are little bits of ourselves that we're comforted by seeing in other people," says Bui. "We all have a funny little label and we're all interesting and we're all part of Austin in a really cool way."
Memes have been circulating around the Internet since, well, the Internet was invented. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, writing, "We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation." Memes spread via multiple online channels, from social media sites to aggregators like Reddit and around and around, navigating a digital gyre. Think back to "all your base are belong to us," arguably the first Internet meme of note, which turned a screenshot from a badly translated Japanese video game into a gut-busting collection of images placing that phrase in hilariously unexpected contexts. This, in turn, spawned generations of LOLcats, images of Sad Keanu Photoshopped into absurd situations, and, most recently, photographs of dorky-looking animals with captions exclaiming things like, "Ermahgerd! Ferncer Ferst!"
"The function of memes is to drive a different kind of humor," says Natalie Darrah, the creator of the #WHENINAUSTIN blog (www.wheninatx.tumblr.com), which both skewers and celebrates Austin's culture via pairings of animated .gifs (themselves Internet memes) and pithy one-liners. "Comedy is funny because it can exist in everything, but it's not as digestible as memes are."
The beauty of a hyperlocal blog like #WHENINAUSTIN, then, is that it provides Austinites the opportunity to laugh at themselves – and at life in Austin in general – in easily recognizable and absorbable nuggets. When an Austinite reads an entry depicting a WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) actor doing a broad double take with the caption, "when you tell a UT student that Trudy's isn't all that great," they can laugh because they know that Trudy's business model depends not on the quality of their tacos and flaquities, but on the voracious appetite college students have for chips and queso and potent margaritas. In short, #WHENINAUSTIN captures the joy (the king-of-the-world feeling of moving freely on I-35 on a weekday) and heartbreak (having an advanced degree and being unemployable, even at Whole Foods) of life in Austin.
The inside-baseball nature of hyperlocal memes isn't just the domain of snarky hipsters, though. In fact, one can still document a segment of Austin life without having spent a lifetime here. In February of this year, Daniel Monroy, a University of Texas freshman from Guatemala, established the UTexas Memes Facebook page (www.facebook.com/UTexasMemes), where students draw from the existing pool of Internet memes and tweak them to speak to a uniquely burnt-orange experience. For example, someone tooling around the page, which has more than 18,000 "likes," might not identify with the image of a young woman's tear-streaked face with the caption, "Ran out of BevoBucks, still a full semester left," but any undergrad who has blown through their prepaid campus-specific credit card can identify.
Momentous events also generate their own memes, such as the unfortunate, yet nonfatal, collision between a freshman and a Capital Metro bus. Soon the UTexas Memes page exploded with variations on the "No cruce enfrente del autobus" message each CapMetro bus broadcasts to its passengers ("Challenge accepted," crowed one meme over an image of a bus). The same thing goes for graduation, finals, registration, and, Monroy expects, the onset of football season.
"It really shows the involvement of UT students and how we're connected and share stuff," says Monroy, a double major in computer science and math. "Most people who didn't go to UT wouldn't really understand things like 'I'm in the PCL by the window.'" And while UTexas Memes may offer a view into a particular experience of going to UT that isn't available to people otherwise, the page may ultimately be a victim of its own success in that Monroy recently struck a deal with the University Co-op (universally accepted as evil on the memes page) to sell T-shirts featuring certain memes without paying proper credit to the memes' creators. "It really is about the students, not me," says Monroy, insisting that the students whose memes are sold as T-shirts will get some sort of credit. As of this writing, it is unclear what that credit will look like.
Some local meme-makers find the popularity of their memes both amusing and perplexing. Nathan Black is a photographer, bouncer, and unemployed tech-industry worker who has been laid off five times in the past five years. His meme, the Dirty Sixth Street Bar Generator (www.hundredflowers.com/barname) – which takes a list of 100 states of drunkenness and another list of 100 animals and randomizes them to make the Ripped Varmint, say, or the Dirty Egret – was both a goof and a professional development project of sorts. "I was refreshing my coding skills because I'm still looking for a job and it was literally the dumbest thing that could possibly work," says Black at Bennu Coffee, his daytime haunt. "That it's getting noticed at all cracks me up."
In many ways, Black's story – not the one about the meme he created, but the story of his bad luck on the job market, his creative projects (Black has run the website www.knuckletattoos.com for six years), and the fact that after more than 20 years in this town, he may have to leave in order to make a living – is the story of Austin itself. It's easy to come here and hard to leave, especially since, as the local meme-makers have made abundantly clear, there is so much here to love and hate – and laugh at.
"Everyone here has come for a reason, and it isn't hard to live here. If you're a hippie or a foodie, a movie buff, a music buff, there's something for you to do, and there are little [cultural] pockets to nurture that," says Darrah. "I know that I wouldn't fit in with the hippie kids or the foodies or the really hip kids that eat gluten-free food all day and go to Wheatsville. But they're here, and I can observe them and it's super fun to exist in a culture that finds places to put all of those people."