The Brief: Memes, which can take the form of catchphrases, images, videos, running jokes, dance moves, and more. As they become increasingly relevant in youth culture, politics, entertainment, and pop culture, it is key to understand where they come from, how they spread, and why they matter.
What Do You Meme?
Although memes are almost everywhere online, it can be difficult to discern exactly what they are. Memes can be trends, challenges, images, dance moves, concepts, videos, or jokes. The term “meme” was originally coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins to describe cultural phenomena that spread between people. An internet meme – what people are usually referring to when they say “meme” – is a cultural artifact, idea, or collection that spreads online through repetition and transformation. Comparisons between memes and biological processes such as genetics and viruses are not accidental. As they spread around the web, mutate, and latch onto various things, memes resemble complex biological systems.
Memes vs. Image Macros
“Meme” is the umbrella term for ideas and things that spread online. They often exist in the form of an image macro, an image with text on top of or next to it. Sometimes the terms meme and image macro are used interchangeably. However, image macro actually refers to an image with text imposed onto it, while “meme” is a broader term. For example, with the Big Chungus meme, the idea of Big Chungus is the heart of the meme. The words “Big Chungus,” the image of a chubby bugs bunny, and the concept of a video game Big Chungus are all components of the meme. An image macro like this one can be a version of the meme, but it does not encompass the entire assemblage that is the Big Chungus meme. Although the image originated from Looney Tunes, the catchphrase came from a video game blogger and the meme started on Facebook. This conglomeration of fragmented elements is a perfect example of a meme that’s a result of information and ideas coming together from around the web.
Where do memes come from?
It can be almost impossible to track where a meme originates, or its original author is. Memes are typically taken from or inspired by TV shows, movies, video games, Tweets, world news, celebrity gossip, and much more. Often a pop culture moment becomes a meme soon after it occurs, but the speed of the internet makes it hard to know where or when something started to be memed and which memes will speak to a wider audience. Understanding how different social media sites facilitate the creation and spread of memes is key to identifying how and why memes go viral.
Reddit is host to numerous meme pages with thousands and even millions of followers. Some of these pages are devoted to more niche categories while others have more general themes like Dank Memes. Reddit’s forum-style and upvote/downvote system makes it an ideal platform for memes to be posted and judged by masses of viewers who determine their success.
The queen of England dying on January 5th conspiracy meme, which did not come to fruition, started on Reddit where it went viral. Its ability to be made into a variety of memes, as well as its popularity on multiple subreddits, is what allowed it to spread, even beyond Reddit. This meme seems to have erupted randomly after a user made the prediction as a joke. From there, much hype and speculation spread around the idea that if the queen did die on that day, that the meme community would have bizarrely predicted a historical moment. After the 5th passed and Elizabeth remained alive and well, the meme fizzled out.
Memes on Instagram are typically more embedded in mainstream culture than Reddit memes are. There is much talk on Reddit about how Instagram users “steal” their memes and meme formats. This may well be, as some memes that begin on Reddit eventually move to other platforms, including Instagram. As it is a visual medium, Instagram is host to memes that explain themselves through images and captions. With photo editing software and apps like Photoshop, anyone with a computer or smartphone can impose text onto an image, making a meme, or a version of one.
The Egg that passed Kylie Jenner for the most-liked photo on Instagram exemplifies how a meme as random as a picture of a chicken egg can gather more attention than a social media star like Jenner. What’s unique about this meme is that it seems to have popped out of nowhere, inspiring people to rally around something unfamiliar, rather than a pre-existing cultural artifact.
On Twitter, text-based memes are the most common, which can be paired with images as well. The some of y’all never…and it shows format is perfect for Twitter since it’s versatile, text-based, and relatable. It’s not uncommon to see Tweets screenshotted and posted on other platforms as memes and image macros.
some of y’all never lied to your parents about being at a sleepover when you were really dead in a field from drinking too much vodka and it shows
— sara (@hiimynameissara) January 10, 2019
On Facebook there are many pages and groups dedicated to memes, sometimes to ones of a certain topic or genre. On this platform, memes that originated on Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, etc. can be shared alongside renditions created specifically for Facebook. Although it may not have started on Facebook, the #10yearchallenge, became a particularly popular meme on Facebook, especially since it’s a site where many people post photos of themselves to share with friends.
YouTube memes are typically video-based and sometimes reference YouTube culture, drama, or viral videos. Still image macros are often incorporated into YouTube videos as well. For example, PewDiePie regularly posts meme reviews, in which he shares and commentates on memes from other platforms, often from Reddit. Meme compilations and remixes are a popular YouTube video format as well.
Why Memes Matter
In order for a meme to have lasting success, it must be translatable to many different social media platforms and able to change enough to be relevant, while still maintaining some aspect of the original meme from which it came. The difficulty of tracking where a meme comes from, how it spreads, and whether or not it will last exemplifies the complexity of memes and how much they rely on a convoluted system of copying, changing, reposting, and ‘inside jokes’ that are actually relatable to thousands – if not millions of people.
Memes are representative of a cultural environment that relies heavily on sharing and copying. With this comes issues with intellectual property and copyright. While memes are inherently collages of many people’s ideas, some creators – individuals and corporations – see aspects or versions of memes that they created as their intellectual property. For example, this issue is at the crux of lawsuits over Fortnite emotes from creatives who want to be compensated for their labor in an increasingly confusing digital economy.
In today’s culture and society, memes are embedded in discussions of politics, in mental health support, and in communication more broadly. Some memes start intentionally, while others seem to pop up and spread without previous planning. While some memes, like the Gillette Ad or the Fiji Water Lady are short-lived one-day hits, others are lasting treasures, pieces of culture that continue to proliferate because of their malleability and relevance. Only time will tell whether memes themselves will last or if they too will be replaced by the next big thing.