Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to mean an idea that is spread by writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. The most common example of this is a joke like the LOLcatz speaking in baby language, but with the advent of YouTube and photoshopping, the practice has continued to expand into ever more bizarre territory. You can find a great collection of the biggest ones on the web here. The formula and means of broadcasting memes has continued to develop to the point that now there are even blogs devoted to single memes. What’s interesting about them is how they have begun to incorporate game elements as a way to keep people engaged. The most obvious example would be the Rick Roll, where you trick someone into clicking on a link that promises something too good to be true. It’s a game in the most basic sense and probably more fun for the person posting than the one being tricked, but other memes have adopted game elements with great results. Michael Buble Being Stalked by a Velociraptor borrows a cue from the hidden object game by taking a photo of Michael Buble and hiding a velociraptor somewhere in it.
In an e-mail interview with creator Mike Lacher, who posts his work at Wonder Tonic, Lacher explains how he got the idea, “For some reason Michael Buble struck me as a funny thing, I think because he’s a fairly major celebrity, but he exists entirely outside the usual sphere of frequently-lampooned or satirized pop stars. When I started doing a few searches, I noticed his publicity photographs were pretty hilarious. All his photos show him lonely and brooding. He’s all alone in cars, phone booths, dressing rooms, and diners. Since the photos are engineered to project this loneliness, I thought it would be funny to have someone/something else there. I guess a velociraptor struck me as the thing least likely to be found in an empty diner at dawn with a Canadian crooner.” The combination of a raptor and the curious celebrity status of Buble are what drives the appeal of the blog because there is a weird amount of abstraction to the exchange. Lacher notes, “There’s definitely some draw from the meme-ness of veclociraptors (Raptor Jesus and XKCD and such) and public bemusement/irritation toward Buble, but I think the chief enjoyment people get is from the randomness. Many of the initial reactions people had when the site was getting tweeted a whole bunch was “this is the next Selleck Waterfall Sandwich” and “another hilarious random tumblr.”
Lacher also makes a distinction between seeing the raptor as a harassing element and something that’s just goofy. He comments, “It’s definitely not meant to add to or detract from him. One of my fears when the site first started getting popular was that it’s going to look like some guy made this website because he hates Michael Buble so much that he wants a raptor to eat him. I’m not much for the ridicule of celebrities themselves as I think it’s pretty non-productive. No matter how clever, bashing celebrities always feels to me like those websites in 1995 where you could shoot Barney with a shotgun. It’s sort of entertaining at first, but after a while it’s just a weird exercise in hollow knee-jerk hatred. I think the things worth satirizing more are the mechanisms by which those celebrities are shown to fans and vice versa.”
The notion of bemusement is one of the common themes that you see in most memes. Someone like Rick Astley is noteworthy because before the meme the general public opinion of Astley would have been neutral or merely unaware of the former pop star. You don’t have strong feelings about these people like you would a tabloid celebrity or controversial political figure. Consider the Hitler meme, which features an outstanding performance by Bruno Ganz in the film Downfall when he finds out that the Russians have taken Berlin. Subtitles replace the German dialogue so that the rant can be about anything. Like the raptor, Hitler has been reduced to a gag in popular culture. The ambiguity of what he’s ranting about (if you don’t speak German) provides a kind of friction that broadens the appeal for observers. As Lacher explains, “I think it requires someone who readers are generally apathetic about. Oft-criticized celebrities would be too played out. No one wants to see hilarious photoshop mashups of Paris Hilton, because that’s all been done. And with a celebrity like that, the motivation of the raptor would be much less ambiguous. He’d become a more malicious force. I think a site where it’s just a raptor trying to eat Octomom would be boring. With Michael Buble, you don’t really know what the raptor wants or why he wants it.”
Where the Michael Buble Being Stalked by a Velociraptor meme starts to adopt new methods is the hiding of the actual raptor. A hidden object game is mostly a casual exchange to kill time that’s challenging without feeling impossible. A post on the basic design techniques at eHow illustrates the basic elements (Dan Chruscinski, How To Design a Hidden Object Game, eHow): arrange objects so that similar shapes are placed together, color based objects should be scattered to make searching for them harder, and place the object out of context as much as possible. Lacher tries to hide the raptor but not to the point that it takes more than a few seconds to find where the raptor is hiding. He comments, “I most enjoy integrating the raptor enough to the point that the raptor isn’t entirely upstaging so there’s more of a joke from the play between Buble’s expression/position and the raptor. I started looking harder for pictures that provide great raptor hiding places. The more unexpected the hiding place, the better. Also, Buble always needs to be totally unaware of the raptor. It can’t be in his eyeline.” In this way, part of the gag is looking for the raptor and seeing what ridiculous spot it’s hiding. Sometimes the raptor is off behind a gameshow booth, staring at Buble from a hole in the wall, or can only be seen in the reflection of his sunglasses. When flipping through the site I found myself consistently laughing at the exact same joke because of the surprise at seeing where the raptor was next.
Part of the beauty of the joke is that others can take it and turn it into their own experience. A different example of this concept is the Godzilla Haiku that is created by Samurai Frog. The idea has to become viral and even on a single-serving tumblr that’s a key ingredient. It allows people to express their enthusiasm for the ambiguous relationship between the raptor and Buble by adding their own touches to the abstraction. Lacher explains, “In general I’ve been really impressed by the submissions. I had no idea if people would submit when I created the option, or how good/numerous submissions would be. There are of course a considerable amount that are pretty hastily done or not all that creative. But there are many that are really surprising and impressive, in terms of creativity and Photoshopping skills. Generally anything that makes me laugh gets included. I can’t believe that I now spend a portion of my free time as an editor of freelance raptor/Buble submissions.”
Like any meme, it’s hard to tell how long or engaging the dynamic between Buble and a raptor can really last. The popularity of the site may have more to do with the sheer simplicity of the concept rather than any complex cultural exchange occurring. Lacher comments, “The ‘single-serving’ thing seems to be becoming its own sort of genre, maybe because those sites provide a different sort of experience. The internet is so full of incredible applications and resources with immense depth that it becomes sort of refreshing to come to a page where someone just crudely Photoshops Scott Beo into various situations.” In the end, any longtime writer on the internet will tell you that predicting what is going to be popular is a futile effort. Things move too fast and people’s attention spans are too fickle to be able to ever tell for sure. So any ideas about a solid formula or essential ingredients to a meme should be taken with a grain of salt. As Lacher points out, “I sometimes spend days working on projects that I think are hilarious and incredible that then land on the internet with a quiet thud. Then I photoshop a dinosaur and Michael Buble and start fielding questions from journalists.”