Lifetime of a Meme or Cultural Relic

Han Shot First t-shirt design from

Han Shot First t-shirt design from

A comment from a coworker got me thinking about the lifetime of shared cultural experiences. We have all had that experience where a someone, a friend, a coworker, a person we start up a conversation with makes a comment or quote and follows it by some qualifier that “I guess I am showing my age with that one” or something similar. Sometimes it is a reference to an old tv show or movie that only people of that generation recognize. Then there are references that people recognize even if they have never seen the media that is being referenced. It makes me think about what sorts of phrases or media from my experience will survive and which ones will turn into odd references that most people do not understand.

Now some of these items turn in to memes that might just live on forever, but even those might have a shelf life. Some of them are just simply movie quotes that people have repeated over and over again. At the same time which ones will live on and will they live on in the way that we remember them?

Star Wars

Star Wars is an interesting study of this concept because there are so many different variations on the universe and the theme. For those who watched the originals of episodes 4, 5, and 6 they have a very different experience then people who first experienced Star Wars watching episodes 1,2, and 3 or the Clone Wars. We have some friends with kids who currently only know Star Wars through Angry Birds: Star Wars (which was just beyond depressing to hear). At the same time that is probably closer to what a younger generation is experiencing with those specific movies.

There is an entire meme created around the fact that the experience of the original versions of Star Wars is no longer available. “Han shot first” is the original fans fighting against the changes that happened during the remake. At the same time the originals cannot easily be watched meaning any future generations will see the remakes. Now it might be possible to find an obscure video, but because it happened before DVD and YouTube it cannot be the easiest thing to find. While it is a single universe it is a great example of how the different generations can experience the same media differently. At what point might the “Han shot first” meme no longer make sense and become a relic of a past age?

Other media surviving

This makes me think about what other memes or quotes are going to potentially fade away or be something that generations have not seen, but know the reference. “Goonies never say die”, “When someone asks if you’re a God you say yes”, “As you wish”, and so many more quotes are part of many of our every day lexicon. Most people know what you mean when you say those words grouped together. At the same time we are getting to a point where we might run in to people who do not actually understand the reference or at least have not seen the tv, movie, etc that is being referenced.

I remember when David came home and mentioned that a coworker had not seen The Princess Bride. To me this is an absolute travesty, but as time goes on it is going to be a growing number who have not seen that movie. They may have heard of the quotes and references, but if you have not seen the movie do you actually understand the glory of the quote.

Media Lifetime

There are some movies, tv shows, and other media that will just come and go out of the cultural conscience. Other items will stick around, but the question is what makes them last. Is it that they caused something new in the medium? Did they enter the culture so pervasively that they cannot be shaken? I do wonder if the technology will extend the lifetime of media now-a-days. Most entertainment is not centered around a specific time or even a place. With the ability to watch almost anything online that means it is not dictated by a rental store or ownership. At the same time it is dictated by the deals to have the rights to show the various media. So is it corporations who will decide what lasts and what is still available? It will be interesting to see as time goes on what things remain in the cultural conscience or fade away.

2 responses to “Lifetime of a Meme or Cultural Relic

  1. This is very interesting. The Star Wars section has Orwellian overtones to me, despite the fact that we are talking about media. The fundamental question “Who decides?” is important and complicated. I can’t say how much will be decided by the audience (things that sell and continue to sell from one generation to the next tend to last), how much by the marketing industry (who can sell almost anything), and what role regulation of online media will play in it all.

    And then there is the fact that there is just so much being produced. The volume of original work is immense, and then you have to consider all manner of derivative work for anything that is even a little popular.

    I think the volume and the fact that revision is so easy may mitigate the role of technology in extending the lifetime of media. We may be entering an age in which movies and tv shows not only come and go, but they also mutate from decade to decade in ways they have not previously done before.


    • The morphing of tv and movies might be very true. Already a movie is hardly out and you can probably find some YouTube video doing some form of parody or another. With the growth of YouTube will our media just go from commentary to commentary, but with original creation still intact. We are at a really interesting time in terms of media because really we are still figuring things out about it and the way technology changes, changes our interaction with it. The history of media is still not that old, unlike the written word. It will be interesting see how it changes and progresses over time.


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