The Harlem Shake: A Conversation About the Sociology of Internet Memes


The sociology of internet memes is absolutely fascinating to me.  Somebody puts something on YouTube that they think is interesting, meaningful or funny but, in most cases, actually skyrockets way above the bounds of ridiculousness.  Sometimes a meme becomes popular because it showcases the extraordinary – but for the most part, it’s all about ridiculousness.

We like things that are ridiculous.  They remind us of our boundaries and the rules of our social order.  They allow us to poke fun at those who might be transgressing those established norms in a lighthearted way but in one that reinforces our values.  We also like things that are ridiculous because sometimes they allow us to not take our rules and boundaries so seriously.  They allow us to escape the boring norms in a safe way by laughing or imitating a slightly “out there”, albeit not so harmful behavior.  I think internet memes play a valuable role in that regard.  Especially the ones that spur on a chain or remakes and remixes.  These types of memes, like the “du jour” Harlem Shake, open up the joke to anyone who wants to participate and encourages the injection of a little less self-consciousness and a little more fun.

You will notice in the videos below that the sociocultural contexts of those enacting the videos that contribute to this meme are those where you would typically find expectations of conformity that are turned on their heads:  office workers, white college boys and even Asian grandmas.

I will also point out that I originally wanted to talk about this meme in the context of how black culture (in particular black street culture and the culture of poverty) eventually gets co-opted by mainstream white culture.  It made me think about why and I realized that, where mainstream (especially White Anglo Saxon Protestant) culture tends to deal with taboos and other stigmatized behavior by ignoring it, urban black communities and many tribal cultures throughout history tend to call them out, challenging people’s anti-norm behavior by making an example of it for the community to deal with as a collective and decide the role that person’s behavior will play in either reinforcing norms or re-evaluating them.  My point being, maybe we are learning some valuable lessons.   And understanding the origination of the Harlem Shake (circa 1981 from Rucker  Park in Harlem) will help me make my point.  Read about it here:


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