Ever heard someone talk about a meme and have no idea what they meant? Internet culture introduced a wide range of new words into everyday conversations. If you don’t spend a lot of time on social media sites or diving into the latest web trends of the day, you may not know the answer to the question “What are memes?”.
The basic definition is that a meme is an idea or social symbol that gets spread through viral means, such as sharing on Facebook or posting on Reddit. However, this description doesn’t do a good job at connecting that concept with what memes actually are.
Memes are a modern cultural phenomenon, but the word itself was coined before the internet took off. Richard Dawkins created the term in 1976 in his book “The Selfish Gene.” So what does “meme” stand for? It comes from the Greek word mimeme. This name stood for an imitated thing, which reflects the way a meme spreads from person to person.
Memes are typically presented as an image, although some video memes do exist. The earliest example came from the early 1900s when photographer Harry Whittier Frees created greeting cards with his cats and a catchy caption.
When the internet made its way into homes in the 1990s, you saw memes such as a dancing baby gif and a dancing hamster web page. They received millions of visits and ended up with plenty of pop culture representation. When you combine humor and the potential for broad appeal, you have the basic meme recipe.
Today’s meme format started with 4chan founder Christopher Poole. By 2001, you saw memes on many popular websites, and they haven’t lost steam since. You’ve probably viewed quite a few memes without knowing exactly what they were. They’re more popular than gifs, Vines, podcasts and live streaming, according to Google Trends.
Some current meme examples include: Harambe, Classical Art Memes, Dat Boi, Spongegar
These four-panel comics typically use a frustrating or rage-inducing situation as the basis for the story. Typically the art is very basic and may incorporate other memes, such as Forever Alone or Trollface.
Videos may be repurposed with different subtitles, music or voice-overs to create a comedic piece. Multiple sources may be compiled into a single video meme.
Themes, Symbols or Ideas
These memes use imagery but don’t adhere to the top and bottom text style used by image macros. via SIZZLE
Types of Memes
Now that you know what format memes come in, you need to know what types to look for and why they’re so popular.
Ever see a picture that speaks to your current life so strongly that you have to share it with all of your Facebook friends? You just sent everyone a relatable meme. These touch on typical day-to-day events that happen to pretty much everyone at some point. Worries about dating, failing tests, work stress and procrastination are a few topics that frequently make their way into this meme type.
Tumblr is a micro-blogging site with a unique community that regularly creates hilarious content, both intentionally and unintentionally. When users share someone else’s posts on Tumblr, it creates a nested response chain when you add comments. The results frequently end up getting a lot of laughs, and screenshots of the relevant parts of the conversation are turned into a stand-alone meme image.
The Twitter platform is limited to 140 text characters, so users have to get creative when they’re sharing jokes or pointing out the most amusing parts of the site. The memes generated from here lean heavily on visuals in a storyboard format, working in pithy one-line responses throughout.
Current Event Memes
Memes tied into current events have a strong viral potential, so you’ll see everyone from your friends to major companies trying to create relevant content. This type of meme directly ties in with newsworthy events, so they frequently focus on celebrities, politicians and other high-profile people.
Fandom refers to the community that grows around an interest. For example, fans of Doctor Who are often called Whovians. These memes use images and art from that particular topic area and are usually only understandable by other fans. While the overall audience is smaller for these memes due to their niche appeal, passionate followers can give them an excellent boost.
“As a first-year college student, I am part of the millions of my generation who are addicted to meme culture. I follow more than 30 Instagram “meme accounts,” a combination of funny pictures mixed with relevant commentary.
My generation turns to memes — our version of “joke searches” — so that we can connect and relate.”
ASHLEY PERLING, NYTimes Opinion Pages
Memes give people many ways to relate to one another, express their interests and react to current events. New memes get introduced every day, although it takes time for a newcomer to reach the millions of views that the most viral ones enjoy. Whether you just want to know what people are talking about or you’d like to learn more about the cultural influences of the internet, you’re ready to take on the meme world. Maybe you’ll even try your hand at making your own to really understand what the big deal is.