YOLO (You Only Live Once, for the uninitiated) is a meme involving the idea that one should not use their time on Earth conservatively; that now is the time to take risks and enjoy life to the fullest. While the phrase “YOLO” was originally printed on a t-shirt line in 2004, it did not grow in popularity until the rapper Drake featured the acronym on his 2011 single, “The Motto” (according to knowyourmeme, a website dedicated to the history of modern Internet memes).
In terms of variation, the acronym has had success in mutating between mediums. Originally printed on t-shirts, YOLO grew in popularity after being used in the lyric, “Now she want a photo, you already know, though. You only live once: that’s the motto n****, YOLO”. From there, YOLO exploded as a popular hashtag on the social networking site Twitter – often associated with tweets embodying the message of the acronym. From Twitter, YOLO mutated into Internet memes, such as the one depicted. YOLO is often quoted in situations associated with reckless or inherently dangerous acts. “I’m not going to study. Let’s go to the bar, YOLO!” is one example of the acronym used in context.
The success of the meme can be contributed to the simple idea behind the four-letter acronym, the behavioral component that encourages people, especially youths, to act recklessly without abandon, as well as, its celebrity origins. Due to its popularity on the Internet, YOLO is easily transmittable through social networking sites. However, in recent months, YOLO has declined in popularity due to a backlash aimed at the incited behavior. Real life incidents, like a rapper dying in a car crash after tweeting the acronym and the growing popularity of Internet memes, like this one using YOLO ironically, have driven people away from the phrase.
Although YOLO is declining in popularity, the message has long been popular – especially in American culture. The larger memeplex at hand – the idea that one should live life to the fullest – goes back much further than YOLO. “Vini, vidi, vici”, meaning “I came, I saw, I conquered” in Latin, dates back to 47 BC and is still used today to represent the idea of taking charge of the situation and not holding back. Other popular meme’s invoking this concept are Nike’s “Just Do It” and another popular Latin phrase – “carpe diem.”
Ultimately, YOLO is a near-perfect example of the truths that lie within meme theory. Mirroring the harmful effects that the message behind YOLO has had on some individuals, Susan Blackmore says in Chapter 1 of her book, The Meme Machine, “Memes spread themselves around indiscriminately without regard to whether they are useful, neutral, or positively harmful to us” (pg. 23). YOLO has independently influenced many people to change their behaviors in differing ways, which supports the meme’s indifference. Perhaps one criticism that arises from YOLO against meme theory is the idea that YOLO itself is a new meme. While the acronym is certainly new, and its popularity and mimicking quite spread, the message behind the meme is nothing different from other memes in the same memeplex. The behaviors supported by YOLO may already be indicative of other past ideologies and sayings contained in people’s minds, therefore nullifying the meme’s usefulness in this scenario.