On the Internet, a meme is a activity or piece of media that gains massive popularity and is shared repeatedly, typically through social media.
The term meme predates the web. It was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to describe the way ideas spread within a culture.
One of the defining features of Internet memes is that they hold greater meaning to members of a certain culture than to those who are not part of the same culture. Take for example the Internet meme Rickrolling. Users who spend a lot of time on the web and on social media will immediately appreciate the humor in this classic bait-and-switch. However, users who aren’t part of that culture may find the entire phenomenon confusing. Likewise, the popularity and commercial success of the song Friday by Rebecca Black is only explicable when its viral status as an Internet meme is understood.
Frequently Asked Questions
How are Internet memes different from offline memes?
Offline, memes are intangible ideas. However, on the Internet, memes are typically visual elements such as videos and images. In addition, memes, as originally defined by Richard Dawkins, have lasting value and transmit bits of human culture with the potential to last for centuries. However, Internet memes usually have a very short lifespan and are popular for just a few weeks, months, or a year or two at most.
What are the main types of Internet memes?
There are at least three major Internet meme categories: image memes, activity memes, and popular media memes.
Image memes are incredibly common and popular on the Internet. An image meme combines text superimposed over an image that is reused and expresses a specific attitude. A few common image memes include One Does Not Simply, Batman Slapping Robin, The Most Interesting Man in the World, Bad Luck Brian, and Success Kid.
Video or photographic evidence of a specific action or activity is also a common form of Internet meme. Examples of this particular type of meme include the Harlem Shake, the ALS ice bucket challenge, and planking.
Some memes are simply media content that goes viral and spreads through social media. Quite often a meme that is shared in this way is shared for comedic rather than artistic value. Examples of viral content that has achieved meme status include What Does the Fox Say, Drake Tennis Champ, and Gagnam Style.
How are memes spread?
For the most part, memes are spread on social media. What happens is that a particular piece of content will be shared by a small group, the social media connections of that group will mimic the original group and share the content with their own network. Over time, the most popular memes can reach massive audiences. For example, the video for Gangnam Style by Psy has been viewed over 2 billion times on YouTube. However, most memes achieve much more modest results.