Brad Kim has been studying memes for a decade. He’s seen a lot of change in formats and in the way ideas spread. In this fun chat, we explore the way the internet has evolved for better and not so better. As editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, Brad is someone who understands the internet better than most. And loves it. Warts and all.

Follow Brad on Twitter or read more here: Know Your Meme

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Your intrepid host, Adam Pierno has written his second book. It’s also kind of about the internet. You can buy it here on this boutique book site. More here and here.


Adam Pierno 0:28

Alright, welcome back to another episode of the strategy inside everything. I’m looking forward to this conversation because I have been reading this website obsessively for as long as I can remember, but I’m not sure.

I’m not sure how far back I my history with this category goes since the site is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Today we have with us the editor in chief of know your meme. Mr. Brad Kim, thank you for joining us, Brad.

Brad Kim 1:00

Hi Adam It’s a pleasure to be here.

Adam 1:02

Where are you calling in from? Are you in Brooklyn? New York?

Brad 1:05


Adam 1:09

That’s great. Um, so I’ve been spending a lot of time on your website, pretty much daily, I actually get it in an RSS and I read. At least I read the headlines of every post on on know your meme, which,

Brad 1:24

oh, thank you that, well,

Adam 1:27

well, it blows my mind a little bit, because I scan them. But Uh huh. When I click into them, I’m blown away by the amount of information on most of these means, like, hard reporting that you guys actually do blows my mind sometimes.

Brad 1:43

Right? We do a lot of yes, we do research.

Adam 1:49

Yeah, but it’s hard. It’s hard core, there’s real data behind it that tells that tells you a lot about the birth of of each of the mediums. Mm hmm.

Brad 1:58

Yeah, I think well to, I guess, in the beginning, and it is still very much the case. But uh, to kind of sum up our approach to mean research was to take a very, very serious approach in documenting and detailing to a subject matter, which was then mostly trivial to light hearted. And so you know, it almost kind of begin with this momentum of, of a joke. But then, yes, now it is a framework that we work with.

Adam 2:40

Do you at the beginning? Was it a joke? Was it meant to be like, ironically serious, or was it meant to be? Let’s really start documentaries?

Brad 2:49

I think so. I mean, I think there was kind of a hint of self aware irony. Especially with the, with the web series. No, your meme, which was essentially a, a mockumentary that really, you know, delved into, say, lol cats for five minutes. You think, you know, critical theories? And yeah, it was kind of going overly in depth. But also, you know, we would there would be takeaways in terms of how we how we look at culture, and how the culture is developing.

Adam 3:28

Well, that’s what I love about the site and the articles is, is what, what they reflect if you can go back and look at things over time. And look at I like that you have been doing the Year in Review. Right now you’re every month you do what were the top names. But right now I’m seeing a lot on the 2018 and review. And that those time capsules are very interesting to me. Have you done any work? I’m setting you up for a question you may not have the answer to but have you done any work looking back at those year interviews to see how, how they’ve been different year over year?

Brad 4:03

Very much. So yes, I think you know, it was definitely around the turn of of our decade mark. And, you know, as with lots of other knowledge resource sites do, you know, after making it through the first decade, what you have is a decade worth of historical, cultural data, also just kind of being naturally inclined towards, towards mapping and indexing things. We’ve been preoccupying ourselves more and more with taking these, you know, summaries of records that exists over a decade, I think we started the monthly monthly review. And in 2009, and yeah, combined with other kind of web analytics data, we are trying to definitely map kind of the most comprehensive timeline of memes, among other things, I think, yeah, there’s a lot of exciting things to be done there.

Adam 5:10

So I really do believe that that know, your team is a valuable resource for people that are trying to tap into culture, because it’s it’s one place where there’s there is mapping and there is documentation behind when something came up. And you can legitimately say, No, no, this is this is already over, I can look at the I can look at the graph here. When what Tell me a little bit about the research stack, or the analytics that you guys are using to figure these out, I’ve spent a lot of time on the site, and I and I try to figure out how you are able to track those stories of you know, behind the scenes and uncover those. You know,

Brad 5:53

sure. So we’ve actually used the, well, at its core, our research process has been kind of an evolution of its own. But fundamentally, it’s just a lot of googling. anti climactic answer. But you know, that as as investigative research, yeah, usually involves, yeah, a lot of it is googling using custom custom ranges, parameters. But as far as tracking and monitoring day to day, our to our trends go, we begin with kind of having 20 tabs open on certain homepages, you know, a mate Yeah, kind of the meme hubs or powerhouses. And we would just press Control are, you know, every 30 minutes, I just remember, waiting for things to load, and then seeing what kicks and what responds and we’ll get likes and what cashier, exactly, and we saw more purple linked, then then blue ones, that means we were you know, we were on a good, good pace there. But yet now, you know, you know, after a decade, a lot of a lot of efforts, at least at know, you’re mean. And their mean, platform development has been really bringing the idea of database to its actual and fullest capacity. So now we actually have kind of a pipeline setup where we are regularly scanning so called viral content, emerging content from various sources. And M and the variety of it is, I mean, that that’s kind of why we had to centralize the pipelines for these things, because yeah, I mean, memes are everywhere. Now, I think as far as figuring out the narrative of how, you know, how it became a meme, it’s still very much requires just a thorough googling, and, and, and setting up the narrative, just figure out how to go back and find the first place where it jumped from laughing about it to 10 people sharing it around, right, but then, you know, there are also other aspects that are becoming more accessible, like, like, like, you mentioned earlier, more of a quantitative assessment. And and this is where as far as meme analysis, or I guess, the madam even culture as in as in people who are actively aware and analyzing meme culture, you need to begin to crunch numbers or, you know, I mean, we are already crunching metrics of likes and shares, but in terms of quantifying the, you know, momentum and Gail of how actually big phenomenon next is, think this is what mean culture where mean culture is headed, in order to not repeat, kind of, you know, where the term trend, this, you know, faded into. Yeah, and then that’s kind of my, my own.

Yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s a theory where, you know, the, I think a part of the big reason why the term meme had such a promising rise was because the term trend, you know, not being able to be quantified, you know, quickly fell out of favor because everything really was a trend and it just meant hype.

Adam 9:39

Right, right. No, I’m glad you touched on this because the word meme has become kind of loaded, as it’s entered. Mass Media culture, where you have anchors at desks using the word and sportscasters mispronouncing the word kind of cracks me up when they don’t know how to say the word.

Brad 10:01

Right? But in itself becomes Yeah, yeah, then that becomes its own meta reflection of me. But say word meme has this loaded meaning and what I’m what I’m reading about, like, for example, TikTok or before that the prototype TikTok, Snapchat. It’s not really about vitality and sharing anymore, like on TikTok, what I see from what becomes a meme is more themes that multiple creators, right on like, they all start dressing like, like objects are they all started doing and the meme is the is the theme that they’re all executing. It’s not about a single artifact or execution of that. I certainly like lol cats as its own category, but every meme that comes from TikTok is its own category.

Adam 10:58

Right? Right. That makes sense.

Brad 11:00

Yes, no, absolutely. And I think that is the current, you know, not to always break.

Brad 11:07

Any, you know, any phenomenon into into stages, but I think that is the current stage of meme culture that we’re in is that, you know, means loosely speaking, are Yeah, certain ways or, or rules through which you actually express yourself. So, you know, like you said, you know, on Tick tock tick tock names, there are certain rules or instructions that you that you adhere to, but at the heart of it, you are the subject of that show of that content, you’re not the performer. So, we’re in a kind of the social environment of meme culture, where memes are really something that we can use to not only add to an existing message, but really repurpose it, or whatnot. But there are lots of options now, and in terms of making creative changes, to order to develop it further. That makes it

Adam 12:17

No, it makes a lot of sense. And I, I wonder if I wonder if the I mean, obviously, it’ll keep evolving, but I just wonder how the shape of it. Now, it’s almost like, follow the leader, you know, somebody and then I guess, for you guys, the task is to figure out, Okay, well, who’s the first one was start that, that thread that everybody jumped on?

Brad 12:41

So that involves kind of another? I guess, field of research practice, which is mapping? Yeah. And then, you know, mapping as in?

It’s the process that answers the three or four w you know, who were, you know, the leading voices and and shaping an opinion or, or or jumpstarting the trend? And where did this occur? You know, you know, when did these things happen? What are the events that, you know, added to the development that, you know, slow down the, its momentum, and all of these things are so mad people. And I think that’s one of kind of the driving incentive for not only for us, but our research community at large. Because, you know, we are a database, where our work is very much supported by by our user base, is that, you know, it’s it’s almost kind of satisfying to collect the map these things because of the precision with which you can you can do this, is it?

Adam 13:53

Do you get it? Do you still get a charge when you’re able to track the beginning of a story and get to the first post? Or the, the origin of the mean? Absolutely, I’m actually we do have a, we do have kind of a cap on how much time we should spend on trying to find that origin, before opening it up of the test to the team. And then before kind of put tabling event until later.

Brad 14:23

I mean, you know, I’m that is good. Yeah, that drives you nuts. I mean, you know, that I, I’ve definitely just gotten into Google holes. Just because, you know, it’s, you know, it, it’s there, and, you know, with another, our research, you know, you get closer to it. So, yeah, I definitely get a charge out of it, and just googling things in general, where, if I think it is some kind of information that would be available, I must find it. Right.

Adam 14:56

Yeah. I mean, were you were you always curious about these things? Or when you started there? I know, you started there, pretty much at the at the outset of the website. What was your experience? Before we were you a journalist, or you just showed that was into the web? Or what?

Brad 15:15

Yeah, I mean, actually, both I got into internet culture pretty early on, right around, like when I was 14, so like, 19, like 99. And having moved from, from a completely different culture, in Korea, I had just finished elementary school there. And now I was living in Delaware. So for me, I was lucky enough to have internet access, you know, it was 56 K, but it definitely kind of became my primary tool in and, you know, getting adjusted, and figuring out, you know, what, all the fellow kids are, kids are into, so it kind of be came my second nature and and, you know, almost like a necessary skill. Because, you know, the internet could give me answers on certain cultural, you know, wise, you know, why why were people saying, you know, can you smell what the rock is cooking, you know, things you Right, right?

Adam 16:20

Yeah, pop culture is the only way to understand.

Brad 16:22

Exactly, so and the internet was was the most it is still the handy is resource now kind of, as for me to keep in touch with, you know, what’s happening on the Korean web, for instance, but I was introduced to internet culture as a learning tool. But also, you know, websites that I visited, were, you know, places like New grounds. You know, there were lots of flash animation websites. And, you know, I got really into Starcraft and you know, the early versions of, of multiplier on Yeah, multiplayer online games. Oh, god, that was my beginning. And then I actually came to New York to study journalism. And to make long story short, short.

I majored in political science and journalism was kind of a, you know, floating thought to maybe move to DC and, and get into political journalism. But, you know, being in New York City, I definitely drifted into more of the arts and culture aspect of it of the city. And also just the, you know, the beat as a primary focus in journalism studies.

Adam 17:43

Well, your your coverage of memes in 2016 and 2000. past that have gotten pretty political.

Brad 17:52

Yeah, it’s become quite Yeah. And and to think that I had thought that I deviated from yet don’t of journalism. But you know, looking back now, it’s, it’s had an interesting convergence with, with Yeah, how how, how the new ecosystem and the medical system kind of feed off of each other.

Adam 18:17

It’s almost like they’re driving each other, you know, in towards a similar output, you know, right, the news, the mainstream news media is getting more and more soundbite driven. And then really, that’s what means are, they’re just different kinds of little clips and blips and sound bites that people can pick up and share and bright us to their whim.

Brad 18:37

And they’re convenient units to to basically site information off of because, you know, in the news reporting process, you know, one of the things that you ascertain, first is ok, to what degree is this statement notable? Or, you know, you know, how wide the agreeable is the statement or, you know, things that pertain to consensus of things, names are essentially units of ideas and trends, or what have you, that arrive with certification, that, that it is a consensus, so, I think, yeah, more and more will see, not only will, will means get political, but the way that we use the word meme will definitely become closer to what a meme really means, in the cultural context at large, which is an idea that is shared by many. And you know, all of that being quantifiable. Do you think

Adam 19:46

so, if I see a mean, there’s been a bunch on Brexit recently, because of the the sure the votes and everything that’s happened there? some names instantly, I go, Okay. All right. That’s it, that’s a commentary on this, or that’s a commentary on that. But there’s a lot of stuff where I was like, I don’t know what the hell that means to culture, I don’t know what that you know, it’s either funny or scary, or it’s silly. Before, it’s just like, for whatever reason, it’s going, it’s catching going from person to person, how much in your reporting, I know, there’s a hard, hard focus on quantifying in really hard journalistic edge, I don’t see you guys doing a lot of analysis or taking it that next step of like, well, this is what I think this means to, to the broader culture, or what I think it’s referencing back to I mean, it’ll always have a Literary Reference or a little reference to what came before it. But in terms of like, a cultural commentary,

Brad 20:46

so I, I’m really glad you brought this up. Because a, this is definitely something that we are, we are in the process of introducing, and, and actually integrating into our just day to day workflow. Because, you know, one of the things that also kind of comes up in the research lab is that, you know, because there are so many more means now, kind of having this, you know, flash in the pan, you know, the complaints that come from the research offices, same as a, you know, on anywhere on Reddit, which is, you know, it’s more of the same, you know, and it’s not really going places, when you read comments, I know exactly what and, you know, some of it is true, but you know, we do have vast resources of materials that we can work with, to, to develop theories and analyses. And, and we do actually, a lot of we have been doing a lot of this pretty consistently, which is actually consulting to, you know, sharing insights with other journalists who are working on.

Yeah, in depth reports on memes, but this is something that because we’re also a pretty small scale, research collective, rather than a newsroom, the model that we are taking on for, you know, research and analysis, we’re planning on doing it more as kind of a periodical. So you know, something like a monthly monthly report, but definitely insights is something that we’re taking on hundred percent this year. And the approach that is involved in the process is also very fascinating, because it’s not just, you know, assessing the size of it, you know, the, you know, the how the attack rate of how, you know, fast it broke out, it’s not about just the numbers, like you said, it’s about the, you know, the cultural meaning and the and the implications kinds of things.

Adam 23:01

I think it’s I, for some, I mean, some things are just flat out dumb are silly, you can see that, oh, I get why that’s funny, we can move on. But sometimes it takes a real analysis, I think there’s a real meat on the bone.

Brad 23:13

Sure, to figure some sometimes I look at stuff that comes out of TikTok in particular, and I’m just like, there’s something really smart in there. And I just don’t know what it is, like, what the commentary actually is, but there’s some satire, right. And I think, you know, the, so the egg, you know, bringing up the, let’s talk about the —

Yeah. So, you know, it’s, I think the egg meme was one of those things where, yeah, I mean, I think a lot of people had different reactions, but you know, the prevailing one being, this is really dumb, but you know, very, very reflective of Yeah, mean culture. But really kind of a, stretching the backdrop of how, you know, the egg meme broke, the Instagram records, and all those things. If we stretch the backdrop to about 10 years, there are actually there is a lineage that basically the Acme does share. Slash has its roots, in another trend, that that became very popular on Facebook, around early 2010. Which was basically like an anti fan page phenomenon. So if we were to break down the egg meme, it’s a it’s a picture of an egg. But the meme itself is nothing about the egg. And in that sense, it is anti content.

The commentary there is anti everything it’s anti, it’s anti mean it’s anti right assumption of of content. It’s like don’t look at this dumb egg go do something.

Adam 24:58

Right and or it, it’s not a don’t look at this segue look at this container. And I want you to make this container. Have more likes than Kim cart, then I’m sorry.

Brad 25:14

The names blanking. So one of the Kardashian sisters. Yeah,

Adam 25:17

yes. I’m Kylie cut. Kylie Jenner. Yeah,

Brad 25:22

Yeah. So that’s what the post brought out was that, hey, make this post. Go, you know, have more likes than college enters post this kind of benchmarking against celebrities was the crux of the joke. When it came to that early Facebook jokes, the one of the most well known one was Ken dishonoring, get more followers and Justin Bieber. That’s right. And it was a Facebook page that had, I think, at its peak over a million followers on Facebook.

Adam 25:57

So I have to say that onion rings are pretty delicious.

Brad 26:01

Right? Absolutely. I mean, and meet, you know, more than a million people agree. Yep. Now, like all of those Facebook pages are either, you know, they’ve been removed, there is a couple that are still alive. But the point is that, you know, the motif of the the theme of the joke in the act meme is something that has been iterated and has resonated with people almost a decade ago before. Yeah. And and this kind of connection and lineage, which, you know, it can be argued that, you know, certain things we are we are the ones that are connecting the dots. But regardless, it’s a it’s a pretty fascinating approach to studying culture.

Adam 26:46

Yeah, no, it’s undeniable connection, whether the author intended that connection or not, it’s their thing. That’s true.

Adam 26:54

Right? Without Yeah, we got regardless of the author’s intention, because authorship is self is definitely secondary. In Meme culture, right?

Brad 27:04

Yeah, that’s, that’s true. Do you?

I’m sure, you could take guesses by a platform. But what do you know about the types of people that I want to put this into marketing terms a little bit? The the each meme is a product? And what do you know about the audience for each of those products? Are you able to in your research, do you see who’s who is propagating the thing? And who was following it and pumping it up? Or? Or what do you see? And what have you found about that aiming?

Adam 27:38

Just Just for clarification, memes around product or just means? Thank you have means as Yeah, that’s right. If you track distribution, are you thinking of memes as products? And you watch the distribution, which is where you guys track? Are you able to really clearly say, Oh, this the audience for this? Is this type of person almost down to a demographic? Or how, how precise, can you? Yeah,

Brad 28:01

well, I think on Twitter, it does really depend on platforms. Right. And I think Twitter is as far as accessibility and the depth of either segmentation, or, you know, that’s the details that we can get it.

Adam 28:21

They really opened with their data platform. So if you’re using any social listening, it usually gives you some sort of a sketch of who it is.

Brad 28:28

For sure. I mean, and Turkey, yeah, for for memory search, you know, out of all major platforms, where means are circulating. Yeah, Twitter definitely is a big lead. And in terms of reciprocal engagement between producers of means, but also a audience of means and co producers of means. And what I mean by that is that, you know, there are definitely people who are not necessarily creative mean, but you know, they’ll, they’ll have, you know, a new film or a new, new video to share. And, you know, there is an audience that’s associated with that. There are people who like it and share it. But then there are also this emerging tier of people who frequently influence the development of these names. And I mean, for the lack of better terms today. influencers and you can see, they’re kind of like nodes in the network, where you could see once it gets to them, they they’re able to blow this thing up.

Brad 29:39

Right. And so we also have a, I guess, a research protocol for you know, when to start a profile article for, you know, this popular Instagram user run that’s really was this huge.

Adam 29:55

So you’re able to know who their audiences and then you can figure out who the audiences for the company expand the thing to the next level.

Brad 30:02

Right. Now, God, it’s Yeah. So, you know, it’s something that’s kind of like under exposed on our site is that and that’s what we also hope to bring to the tour front end on our site is the ontology. And then the family tree of means that at the moment, we can only see on our back end. But these are things that really, that we really want to make it more accessible for people, but also analyze it and and make deeper, deeper maps out of it.

Adam 30:36

I think it’s really cool. And I love the work you’re doing. Before I let you go, I want to ask you, what do you think is the most vital? What’s the platform that you think is doing the most – having the most cultural impact today?

Brad 30:54

I’m having the most prevailing the most Yeah, most prevailing clout? I would have to say, I mean, Twitter is still very much Yeah, I think that’s still pretty central for for sharing ideas and getting ideas out. Yeah, if we, you know, if we’re measuring the success of morality or or success of a meme saturating know, over culture, I think in terms of instantaneous factor, and you know, how much is saturates? And how divergent it spreads across other platforms? Twitter, I think rates? Yeah. The second night,

Adam 31:39

that’s interesting, because there’s such a big crossover from platform to platform with people that use Twitter, so ideas are able to escape through there.

Brad 31:47

Right. I mean, this is not to say it is the most influential platform when it comes to setting you know, setting the tone of certain things. So I think you know, different communities have found their different niche to to their role. Yes.

Adam 32:08

Alright, well, this was, this was awesome. I’m glad you made time to dig in with me here and nerd out on means, which I guess I guess you do every day.

Brad 32:18

Yeah, I love them. I’m glad to be doing this on yours. Yeah. On your podcast. It was a pleasure.

Adam 32:26

Thank you for some of my questions. I think you’re kind of elementary for you. If you’re if you’re thinking about beams all day long, and doing the research is probably like, why are you asking?

Brad 32:35

Oh, not at all like, honestly, they get working on internet means for 10 years, like nothing is really uh, yeah, nothing becomes dumb. I mean, but not the My point is no, this has been a very interesting conversation. Awesome. So thank thank you

Adam 32:51

very much, again for joining us and where can people find you on online? Brad?

Brad 32:57

You can find me with the handle on Hi, I’m Brad Kim know contraction. I am everywhere. Pretty much on all platforms.

Adam 33:10

Yeah, I will post that in the show notes so people can find you on a couple of the platforms.

Brad 33:15

Okay, sounds good.

Adam 33:16

Alright, well, that was awesome. Thank you again. All right.

Brad 33:18

Thanks. Have a good night. Bye.