It’s a Meme Kind of World Now

In today’s world, it’s almost impossible to go online and not see a meme. Those sometimes funny, sometimes gross, and usually just awkward images. And, they’re typically accompanied by some sort of text. Information that the author hopes is relatable and funny. Memes are a commentary on the ordinary life. The goal, to use exaggerated humor to commiserate with others. In some sense, memes are a unifying feature of digital content. And while they’re silly, they also say a lot about society. So, it’s important to go behind the scenes of the meme to understand what is really going on. And, why are they so darn popular?

Where Memes Come From

Memes have been around about as long as the Internet. Originally, they were on forums like Ebaum’s World and 4chan. But, as our technology evolves the meme is also advanced. They’ve gone from a simple image and text to now incorporating video or gifs.

In 2006, an Internet prank called, Rickrolling became one of the first video memes. It was a bait-and-switch URL. When clicked, instead of the intended website popping up, Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” 80’s music video appeared.

Then, about 5 years ago, the social media app Vine, helped memes really take off. And while Vine is no longer around, some of its original memes are still shared on Twitter, Imgur and YouTube. Tumblr helped make memes a mainstream phenomenon. Now, TikTok and Twitter have the best meme game. So, what exactly is a meme?

The Definition of a Meme

Through a series of events, a biologist coined the term “meme” in 1976. Richard Dawkins, was looking at human evolution. That’s when he decided that ideas could also be replicated and evolve. Not so coincidentally, the online term “viral” also comes from the scientific world.

Merriam-Webster defines the word “meme” as, “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” High-quality and nostalgic ones can be humorous and insightful while others can be rude and distasteful.

The Smithsonian has even weighed in on the topic of memes. Because memes have become more than simply a way to mock people. In fact, they are a complex form of communication. They relay feelings in a unique way. Plus, they speak to popular culture and create a sort of social scrapbook.

The Method to the Madness

This little image and text snippets are a way to express ourselves. But, they also work kind of like a metaphor. They reflect what is happening in society at any given time. And, they play an important role in or culture. Some have said memes are an art form. And, owe a much deserved nod to art history. But, one that comes with a side of consequences.

They also give people an outlet. A way to use sarcasm and irony to vent. A means to be self-deprecation when expressing tough feelings. To be heard. And, a new medium to communicate it all online.

Symbols Among Us

Semiotics is the study of symbols. Specifically, understanding visual images and how they deliver meaning. Academics have used semiotics to take a deeper look into memes. How an Internet fad creates social commentary. These online communications combine images, text, art, language, creativity, myths, and popular culture. Individually, they serve a specific purpose. Together, the result is up for interpretation.

  • Images/Art – On its own, a photo or drawing creates a feeling. When text is added to the image, it becomes a representation of one social situation that can be applied to similar situations.
  • Text – The font most commonly used is Impact. The text is easy to read when it is on an image. Because its such a staple online, the font has its own memes.
  • Language – A key component, language makes sarcasm possible. Teens are using language and emoticons to express themselves. Add an image, and a meme develops.

There is no true list of required components. After all, body language, political slogans, and musical melodies have all been memes.

Cream Always Rises to the Top

What makes a meme successful? Going back to Dawkins, he found three aspects:

  • Longevity – How long it lasts.
  • Fecundity – How many copies of itself it generates.
  • Fidelity – How faithful are those copies to the original.

From dancing babies, Willie Wonka, cats, and Chuck Norris, the most popular have these three things in common. Universality and malleability serves as the true measure of a great one.

The University of Manchester’s School of Mathematics in the UK measured impact and longevity of 26 different Internet memes. They were able to predict the impact and duration of an online fad with 95-percent accuracy. Another recent study found that initial popularity or going viral doesn’t mean it won’t fizzle out quickly.

Marketers are working feverishly to get in on the trend. Brands like Gucci and BarkBox use memes on Twitter and Instagram to stand out from the crowd. The trick is to be authentically fun. Consumers don’t want a joke to be forced or to obviously sell them something. Other standouts include Spotify, which used the medium to target Millennials and Gen Z. TikTok brought the ‘VSCO Girl’ come to life as well as the associated products (hydro-flasks, reusable straws, Kanken backpacks, Birkenstocks, and scrunchies). The reality is, 55% of 13-35-year-olds send memes every week. And, 30% send them every day. They serve as an important communication tool for this generation. In fact, 29% say they share memes on social media, 15% in chat apps, and 31% in both places. These adolescents see the medium as a sort of rhetorical shorthand.

When They Get it Wrong

Like most art, sometimes when individual elements are put together, the meaning is altered. Unintended repercussions surface. For example, Pepe the Frog became a symbol of hate. For some, cultural insensitivity and systemic racism is a meme’s natural playground. And, there are those people that find them funny. Also, those people that find them offensive. They have touched on almost every ethnicity and culture. They perpetuate stereotypes.

Pewdiepie started out as a lighthearted comic. Then, it contributed in part to the New Zealand mosque shooting. The OK hand symbol went from innocuous to a white supremacy rally cry. The meaning can even change because of social or national context. Websites like KnowYourMeme update their content frequently to avoid inadvertent use of a controversial message.

The Future is Nye

The trend is becoming a fact of life. And, marketers don’t’ believe they’re going anywhere anytime soon. They hope to leverage them as much as possible. Yet, these simple and powerful media are both unifying and divisive. They are entertaining and thought provoking. Ultimately, it’s about how they are interpreted. And, whether they uplift or tear down. Some have even suggested that human programmed bots could start a new AI meme revolution. But, would they be more sympathetic to the feelings of humans? Or, would they continue to hit a raw nerve. Wreaking havoc on an already chaotic world.


By Dana Hackley
PHD in Communications Media and Instructional Technology.
She is a Public Relations Specialist for Jackson Kelley PLLC where she creates, manages, and executes the firm’s communications strategy across multiple office locations. In addition, she works as an online Academic Coach through Instructional Connections LLC assisting with Communications undergraduate and graduate courses.


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