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(Google’s trend charts of the phrase “Harlem Shake” are seismic. Almost no one looked for the words until Feb. 7, then searches surged faster than any term Google ever had, except for “Whitney Houston” after her death. A few weeks later, they fell close to zero.

Experts said the “Harlem Shake” phenomenon was emergent behavior from the hive mind of the internet — accidental, ad hoc, uncoordinated: a “meme” that “went viral.” But this is untrue. The real story of the “Harlem Shake” shows how much popular culture has changed and how much it has stayed the same.

The word “meme” comes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Bits of information — memes — propagate from brain to brain through imitation, are subject to selection and can be regarded as living structures, he says, “not just metaphorically but technically,” because new information changes our brains. They are often made deliberately — think catchphrases, slogans, melodies — and makers may try to propagate them as fast and far as possible, or make them go viral. The myth of the “Harlem Shake” is that its viral spread was spontaneous, not directed by financial interests — a pop culture, popular uprising. Here’s how the meme and the myth began.

What has changed?

Google’s YouTube, not Apple’s iTunes, is now the dominant force in music. Nearly 2 billion music videos are viewed on YouTube every day. When Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 on Feb. 20, only the 21st song in Billboard’s 58-year history to do so, and the first by a previously unknown artist, it was because of YouTube. This highlights a broader point: Google has amassed unprecedented power as a medium. It is massive, global and central. In addition, its claims about viewership are not audited. Television, radio and newspaper audiences are measured by independent entities like Nielsen and the Alliance for Audited Media. Advertisers can be reasonably certain how many people are seeing their messages. Google’s and YouTube’s audience claims are not measured independently. Everyone initially involved in driving traffic to the “Harlem Shake” had the same incentive: to increase the number of views. Unlike other media, there were no checks and balances except YouTube’s own secret view verification system. Google regards clicks and views as a “currency,” and take pains to get the numbers right, but unlike most other mass media, its figures are not verified by anyone who does not profit from higher numbers.

The brain-to-brain propagation of Dawkins’ memes can now happen worldwide within seconds. We have a new real-time, global culture that is not only technological but also social. Experiences like imitating the YouTube videos for “Single Ladies,” “Somebody That I Used To Know” and “Call Me Maybe” create instant traditions, or “meta-memes,” that prime us to become ultra-efficient human information routers. Memes become themes become meta-memes become norms. A few years ago, few people would have posted a video of themselves singing or dancing on YouTube. Today, for many, doing so is not only second nature — it’s urgent. In our real-time culture, meme speed matters. Primacy is more important than privacy.