What Is a Meme?

Michael Kwan
cat santa hat meme

Just as there are countless TV, movie and music pop culture references that help to define a generation, the same has become increasingly true for Internet culture. In particular, Internet memes have flourished in an online environment filled with social networks, amateur blogs and online communities, providing a great source of enjoyment and laughter for web surfers around the world.

Defining the Internet Meme

An Internet meme, pronounced 'meem' to rhyme with beam or team, is a piece of content on the web that spreads virally. It is usually humorous in nature and the demographic that most interacts with and spreads Internet memes tends to be teenagers and young adults, though users of all ages do participate. Funny cat videos are a good example of Internet memes, because they are frequently shared through online networks like Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. While some memes do remain intact when they are shared on the web, there is also a creative element where many users take an existing meme and add their own humorous variation.

Traditional Memes

The concept of a meme, even if the word had not yet been coined, far predates the rise of the mainstream Internet. The content of a meme could be just about anything, encapsulating some aspect of the common culture of the age. Before the Internet, a story, image or idea would spread via word of mouth. Something as simple as a knock-knock joke could be arguably categorized as a meme. Now, with the instant sharing nature of the Internet, memes can spread far more quickly by way of social media, instant messengers, blogs and other channels.

Three Types of Memes

While there are many different kinds of memes on the Internet and the categorization is hardly official, memes can be roughly broken down into three main types.

1. Funny Pictures and Captions

By far the most common type of meme is a funny picture. The image is oftentimes static and accompanied by a style of caption and vernacular specific to that meme, but the image can also be animated GIF and it may not necessarily have a caption at all.

The most popular image-based Internet memes use the same or a similar picture, with individual users providing their own funny caption. The 'lolspeak' exemplified by many posts on I Can Has Cheeseburger is a good example of this phenomenon.

Other popular examples include:

  • Business Baby: A man posted a picture of his son on his play phone and the image spread like wildfire. The resulting captions had the infant making business decisions, but from a baby's point of view. In one example, the baby is captioned as saying, "Tell Ian I'm not signing the agreement until he gives me my nose back."
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson: The famous astrophysicist is known for being quite animated when giving talks. In a video he did with Big Think, he held his hands up with a 'look out' expression on his face. The resulting meme used both a screen capture from the video, as well as a line art drawing, both of which are typically captioned as "Watch out guys. We're dealing with a badass over here." The image is oftentimes used in social media or online discussion boards in response to pompous or pretentious comments.

2. The Viral Video

In addition to images, funny videos can also go viral on the Internet. As with pictures, the meme can remain intact and be used as-is, but the creative nature of the web also lends itself to many individuals providing their own unique spin on the meme.

Dramatic Gopher

The very short six-second clip of the 'Dramatic Gopher' was a very popular meme and it was subsequently inserted into a variety of YouTube videos at particularly 'epic' or dramatic moments.

Gangnam Style

South Korean artist Psy roared onto the international stage with his hugely popular Gangnam Style song. The music was popular, but online audiences were particularly amused by the music video. A meme was then born as countless parodies of Gangnam Style were posted on YouTube, like Farmer Style.

3. The Accidental Celebrity

Many people post videos on sites like YouTube hoping to get a few views, but a small number unexpectedly become overnight sensations - often at their own expense - and become Internet memes themselves.

Star Wars Kid

The so-called Star Wars Kid is a point of ridicule for many, with his original video being subsequently edited and included in other submissions. In his original video, he spins a pole around in a martial arts-like fashion. This was later edited to change the pole into light sabers, among other renditions.

Gary Brolsma

Similarly, Gary Brolsma posted a lip-sync video to O-Zone's Dragostea din Tei on YouTube. His 'Numa Numa' dance became a very popular meme too.

Antoine Dodson

Antoine Dodson provided an interview to a local news channel and his exuberant personality made for several choice sound clips. These were then auto-tuned to create the Bed Intruder song. Dodson did not create the song himself, but he gladly capitalized on his accidental celebrity status while he could.

A Growing Aspect of Pop Culture

The increasingly collaborative and social nature of the Internet lends itself well to the creativity and humor seen in many of the memes that spread online. New memes are being created all the time and some even cross over in mainstream society.

As an example, the 'doge' meme started out with a humorous photo of a shiba inu dog, captioned with emphatic descriptions like 'such happy' and 'very scarf'. It then grew into a parody cryptocurrency called Dogecoin, which works in a similar way as Bitcoin. The alternative currency started almost as a joke, as most memes do, but the Jamaican bobsled team actually fundraised in Dogecoin to pay for their trip to the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.

Memes are a very large part of modern day pop culture. While the often start and spread online, they continue to impact the world beyond the web as well.

What Is a Meme?