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AI’s Creative Twist on Classic Memes: Exploring the New Frontier of Digital Memory



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Artificial Intelligence Transforms Meme Culture

An image familiar to virtually every internet user depicts a man ogling a woman walking by, his expression reminiscent of Joey Tribbiani's iconic “How you doin’?” look. Since its debut in 2017, the “distracted boyfriend” meme has become a staple of online culture, embedding itself into the digital world's shared memory by applying various contexts to the same stock photo. Currently, artificial intelligence is altering how we remember that widespread phenomenon and numerous other meme sensations.

Videos known as “time traveler” clips, especially popular on TikTok, are AI-crafted visuals that are making the rounds online. These videos give a new perspective to recognizable memes by adding previously unseen elements. At times, these additions can pause the ongoing action or even introduce a ghostly figure. An example of this is the “distracted boyfriend” animation shared on X (previously Twitter) recently, where the boyfriend character is depicted as walking away to follow the woman he was looking at, leaving his girlfriend behind.

The video was produced with the aid of Luma Dream Machine, an artificial intelligence tool capable of generating high-definition, lifelike videos from given images and text commands. Shortly after it was launched, individuals on various social platforms began to use well-known meme pictures and scenes, experimenting with Dream Machine's capabilities to generate new content. These experiments showed that although the AI tool isn't perfect, it possesses the remarkable potential to transform the internet's most iconic visuals.

As the Dream Machine's usage expanded, certain recurring visual errors and flaws became apparent in the AI-generated content, including distorted representations of people and objects transforming in unexpected ways. These issues raised alarm among some social media users, who were worried about the rapid advancement of AI and its ability to generate false information. Conversely, other individuals were entertained by the nonsensical mistakes produced by the model.

The thought that a meme modified by artificial intelligence could become more popular than the original image might seem troubling, but Phillip Hamilton, an editor at Know Your Meme, doesn't see this trend as a major risk to preserving digital media. He suggests that it's actually the widespread familiarity with the original images that allows these AI-enhanced versions to succeed.

"Typically, the background is common knowledge," states Hamilton, alluding to the widespread editing of specific images. "The trend is fundamentally driven by the video's fame… at the heart of the [time-traveler] meme is the halt of that well-known event."

The essence of circulating memes on social media platforms is centered on how users engage with these memes. Given that the majority of memes are initially created through editing, Hamilton believes that utilizing AI to modify memes is considered acceptable.

Luma claims its Dream Machine can produce 120 high-quality video frames in less than two minutes, even after experiencing considerable hold-ups from overwhelming demand. The rapid production capability, combined with a "no-cost" option that permits users to create as many as 30 clips monthly, has positioned Dream Machine as more user-friendly compared to its competitor from OpenAI, Sora. Despite Sora's announcement back in February, it remains unavailable to the public to date.

The convenience and unrestricted use of the Dream Machine model have encouraged numerous individuals, including Lukas Robert Hron, a 23-year-old video game creator from Sweden, to develop fresh takes on well-known online memes, such as trending clips from the now-closed site Vine.

On the 14th of June, Hron shared a video on X that added a twist to a well-known 2013 Vine where a child humorously misinterprets the math question “What’s nine plus 10?” In this altered version, a mysterious figure appears just before the boy humorously delivers his incorrect response. Accompanied by eerie music, the clip elicited a mix of confusion and fascination among viewers. Within two weeks of its posting, this modified video had attracted over 30 million views on X and gained further attention as it spread across various platforms, often accompanied by captions suggesting scenarios like “POV: time traveler arrives to alter meme history.” This theme of a “time traveler” has become a recurring motif as users continue to reinterpret and play with viral Vines.

The footage, frequently odd in nature, prompts a visceral reaction due to the artificial intelligence's eerie representation of human shapes and motions. Hron, who coincidentally creates horror video games, aimed for his creation to evoke discomfort, yet its peculiar imagery was simply the result of Dream Machine's imperfections. Additional entries in the "time traveler" trend depict individuals from the initial videos pursued by dark entities, transforming into mysterious beings, and engulfed by monstrous figures.

"Hron mentions that the ease with which AI can make mistakes inherently contributes to their frightening aspect."

Though these computer-created images may not outshine the classic memes, they herald the arrival of a fresh era of digital content and a novel way for social media enthusiasts to interact. What currently appears as odd and far-fetched alterations of memes might lay the foundation for a future where online viewers are broadly distrustful, doubting the authenticity of even memes.

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