Kid Memes by Mark Stone

October 2012. The Internet meme - those viral photos, videos, or sly bits of humor that spread through social networks. We think of the Internet meme as strictly the province of adults and teenagers online. But what happens now that we have children who were born into the social networking world? What happens when kids are online even before they can read? Is the meme even possible for this demographic? If you think the answer is "no" then either you don't have kids, or you aren't paying much attention to their online activity.

Thomas the Tank Engine has been a fascination for my 6 year old, Nathan. I'm sure this is true for most boys from age 3 to age 8. We have an endless supply of wooden track, dozens of engines, coaches, and freight cars, and numerous track accessories like bridges, tunnels, and stations. Nathan's room, the family room, and the living room are often covered with his sprawling railway constructions. And in typical little boy fashion, the whole point of these grand designs is to make things crash. The bigger the crash, the better.

Of course the Thomas videos support this boys' view of the world. Most episodes involve some sort of accident, near disaster, or Sir Topham Hat booming out "You have caused confusion and delay." And Nathan, like most boys, is an avid consumer of these videos. These days consumption is a diverse experience. In our household, Thomas is available:

  • On video cassette tape
  • On DVD
  • On DVR-lite (Comcast's "On Demand" service)
  • On Netflix, which really means:
    • Netflix on TV via the Wii
    • Netflix on a tablet (Nexus 7)
    • Netflix on a smart phone (Android)
  • On YouTube, on any of the same devices as for Netflix
Ah, YouTube.... Probably the ultimate celebration to things crashing amongst Thomas videos is this one: Accidents Happen.

Originally my wife and I had some concerns about how much time Nathan spent watching videos vs. actively playing. This quickly became a non-issue. For Nathan, these are not separate activities. He watches and then, while the video is still playing, copies what he's seen with his own train set, and then improvises into his own imagination. These videos are not limiting his imagination, they are inspiring it.

And Nathan is by no means alone. The Accidents Happen YouTube video has been viewed 432,000 times. To put that in perspective, the video currently on the front page of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson's page has been viewed only 42,000 times.

What's really fascinating, though, is that Nathan on his own discovered an entire other world of Thomas videos. YouTube "helpfully" puts up links to what it deems "related" videos, and this quickly took Nathan into the realm of user-generated Thomas videos: videos of kids playing with their Thomas train sets, filmed and uploaded by their parents. For Nathan, this inspired him to a whole different level of creativity. Now he doesn't just want to play along with the videos he was watching. He wants to be one of those YouTube stars whose Thomas videos are online.

In other words, he wants to make his own contributions to the Accidents Happen meme.

And make no mistake; Accidents Happen is a full-blown meme. Here's the most watched video of this meme; it has been viewed over 19 million times: Thomas the tank engine - Accidents will happen. That's about the same number of views enjoyed by Metallica's "Enter Sandman".

Nathan has several of his own takes up on YouTube of Accidents Happen, like this one. The meme has renewed his interest in Thomas the Tank Engine, and inspired hours of creative play on his part. Perhaps most importantly, it makes him feel connected to a world-wide community of like-minded Internet denizens. Perhaps that's why memes are so attractive to all of us.

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