Brennan's official job title is content and community associate at Tumblr, but everyone at the microblogging platform calls her their “meme librarian.” She spends her days on the front lines of an online meme's creation, dissemination and, yes, inevitable death.
As she explains it, “My community is the Internet.” At Tumblr, Brennan sifts through the thousands of pieces of original content, from vines to videos to text posts - and from there, she catalogs ongoing trends, identifies up-and-coming blogs and documents the latest news in the Tumblrverse.
Brennan's career in meme librarianism began in graduate school at Rutgers, where she received a master's in library science - the degree required to become a librarian. But instead of heading to a brick-and-mortar library, Brennan continued documenting online phenomena at Know Your Meme and then at Tumblr, where she solidified her profession as information desk for doge, mmm whatcha say and the other viral Internet sensations in need of classification, categorization and preservation.
“The weird spots, the big spots - I want to make it my business to know everything that goes on and watch it and analyze it and break it down for everyone - the Internet user who thinks the whole Internet is Facebook, or the Internet user who is really deep into the weird parts of the Internet,” she says.
So - how exactly does one become a meme librarian? How is it different from being a front-desk librarian (besides the obvious)? And what does Brennan, you know, actually do every day? In an nterview with The Washington Post, Brennan talked Internet history, Antoine Dodson, the true meaning of meme life and more. Her answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
A day in the life of a meme librarian
When I was at Know Your Meme, I was doing physical cataloguing. Like, “OK, Advice Dog started on this blog, here's the first post if we could find it, here's the next six, here's the big influencers.” Now, I'm doing much more Tumblr-centric work, so when something is happening on Tumblr, I grab it. A lot of it happens on my personal blog - I have a tag, #memeculture. A lot of it is meta-meme and people complaining, “Oh, I'm tired of memes but I can't stop loving them.”
I think of the Internet as its own community, and if you want to compare it to a local library, they're going to catalog all the small things that happened. If you want to know what happened in a part of New York City in the 1700s, I know a library would have cool letters, or maps or something like that. Something like Star Wars Kid, you had to download the video and had to be involved in some weird Internet pocket to see it. But now a viral video gets posted six times and it becomes a vine, it becomes a gif set, and you kind of can't escape it. I think it's important to catalog these things because you know the history of the Internet.
Falling in love with information (and the Internet)
I've always been really interested in information and how it's sorted together. And it kind of started when I was a teenager with this website Audio Galaxy. It was kind of pre-Napster and it would show you a genre of music and all the bands associated with it and then it would connect them. I would spend hours just sitting on it, looking at this taxonomy and saying, “Whoa, this is connected to this, and this is the whole genre of 2000s emo - how many steps away is Dashboard Confessional from The Anniversary?” And it was just this thing I really had a passion for. And I would get so excited when I made a new connection. It really stayed with me all through college. In college (at Drew University) I studied modern literature. I became obsessed with James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, and, again, it was all about the connections between literature and what sources people were using, where the quotes were coming from. I loved diving in and tearing apart the lines and figuring out who inspired what.
So - why catalog memes anyway?
If you get your weird advice animal, we're not going to sit there and tear it apart. But when a really big cultural change happens, when you see something new and exciting or something that's breaking away from Internet culture and into mainstream culture, that's like when we're going to be like “OK, let's sit down and talk about this.”
At Know Your Meme, we would have conversations about the correct pronunciation of “doge.” I remember sitting around the table and being like, “Let's think about this. How do we say this out loud?”
Some stuff just keeps coming back. A really good example of this is mmm whatcha say. It was so big in the beginning. You couldn't escape it. And even when it started, it was still a few years removed from the original OC content. And I think when the “SNL” parody happened, it was like four days or something between the first parody. And all of a sudden this year, it came back so strong.
Without that history, if there wasn't a Know Your Meme page for mmm whatcha say, would people have found it? Would people know, “This is what you do when someone dies in a ridiculous way?” Sometimes it disappears within a day.
No one knows the true first source of longcat, but it was reposted in the time before people thought, “Oh, we should write down who is posting what.” Without archiving, no one knows what the primary source document is. Once you start archiving, you can tell, “Oh, this photo originally appeared on this person's blog in Japan, and then 4chan made doge. The importance of sitting down to find these sources gives the creator the credit he/she deserves. Sometimes it gets buried under all the we-heart-its and the rebloggys, but without sitting down and saying, “This is important,” the creator loses his content - and that's not fair.
- Pursuing library science as a career path
(In graduate school) immediately I knew I did not want to work in a traditional library. Which is weird because people go to library school and they're like “I want to change the world with books!” And I was like “I want to change the world of information.” And they started a social media specialization in the library school, and I was like, “This is it. This is the right time for me to be here.”
My spring semester in 2010 I took my first social media-heavy class. I studied under [a professor] who did amazing work with Flickr tagging. And the way people connect through tags. I was like “this is the thing I want to study.” I love metadata. I took so many metadata classes. I just love the idea of using tags to add more context. Yes, there's the traditional metadata of saying, “Yes, this book is about Alexander Hamilton, and history, and World War II.” But when people start adding personal metadata to it, this extra level of - we see that more online than in a traditional library setting. On Tumblr, people will add a tag like, #oh my God this is the coolest thing I've ever seen. Like that kind of metadata is what excites me. This really impersonal thing of tagging to get found, and this next layer of tagging to add context for your future self, for your followers and just to express what you love in a space outside of the content.
From Know Your Meme to Tumblr
My first semester of school is when I found the website Know Your Meme. I was looking up some weird 4chan meme because I had been on 4chan that night and I was like “What is this thing that everyone is talking about?” I came across it and I spent like three hours pouring through everything on there. I was like, “This is it. This is the thing.” I saw myself as a librarian being able to contribute to that.
I sent this 2 a.m. email like “Hi, my name is Amanda. I was wondering if you guys had internships because I think you guys could benefit from a librarian. I think we could work together really well. Here's my favorite meme of the time!”
I interned there in the summer of 2010, and that summer really changed my life. It was the summer of Antoine Dodson. I remember when it happened, we all gathered around a whiteboard and started tracing out. It was more than just Bed Intruder. More than just the auto-tune. We were trying to really break down the idea of why local news stories go viral and what is the draw of that, and why do people love these stories and changing them into something else. And sitting in that room is one of my most vivid memories from the summer and also like the moment of, “OK, this is the kind of information I want to deal with.” I want to be able to make these connections and show them to people so that they're thinking about this funny thing their friend sent them in a more critical way.
The Washington Post