I’ve been reading about dinosaur ichnology so I’ve been seeing a lot of the word “meme” in its original sense: a behavior or pattern of behaviors that is transmitted socially among organisms. A meme in this sense tends to propagate by natural selection; particularly intelligent and sociable animals are more likely to teach a behavior to their young if the behavior turns out to improve chances of successfully having and raising young. We tend to look at animal memes from the perspective of where we currently stand in time: for example, why do some birds use tools? We infer that once upon a time a bird figured out how to dig for grubs with a stick and, Prometheus-like, introduced this knowledge to its people. Smart birds have used tools happily forever after.
Obviously adaptation is not that simple, particularly in rapidly changing environments–and since there is no more rapidly changing environment than the internet. Internet memes become memes by rapid repetition and revision, and they may be distinguished from other human behaviors and fashions by their seemingly limitless potential for mutation. One of the things I really enjoy about Tumblr and Twitter is seeing these memes evolve in real time. One day someone will make an offhand remark about breadsticks, and the next day everyone is talking about filling their purses with breadsticks. The next day, someone is already complaining of how outplayed the breadstick meme has become. Meanwhile, a substantial percentage of the free world has no idea why their Twitter feeds are sprinkled with photos of purses full of bread.
The gist of the breadstick meme [knowyourmeme] [Buzzfeed] is that two people are on a date when one party casually makes a problematic remark, and the other party grabs all the complementary bread from the table and bolts.
I love this meme as a textpost because the breadsticks really bring it to life. This is not just disembodied dialogue rendered in text: this awkward date conversation is taking place somewhere familiar enough to imagine, the kind of casual bistro that might make a marginally but not intimidatingly romantic setting for a date. Probably someplace “nice” but not too expensive: I’m sure I’m not the only person who envisions this scene set in an Olive Garden, where the breadsticks are cheap and unlimited. And the sudden grab for the breadsticks is so much more poignant than merely ghosting; it’s physical, it shows that the second party is willing to behave inappropriately for the venue after the first party demonstrates their incompatibility. And the scene pokes fun at the social expenditure of dating; it’s clear that the second party considers the date a wash, but rather than take a net loss they will walk away an armful of bread to make it worth the time.
That’s a lot of semantic work for a seemingly minor prop to do. The joke is in the hyperbole–what do you feel so strongly about that you’d storm out of a dinner?–but without the breadsticks, the joke would not have gone viral.
I like variations where the breadsticks become props in unexpected ways, spilling out of purses or gently guiding the second party back to the table:
And of course no internet meme reaches its full potential until there incisive commentary on said meme: