What Is a Meme?

Examples of popular, funny memes

A meme is a virally transmitted image embellished with text, usually sharing pointed commentary on cultural symbols, social ideas, or current events. A meme is typically a photo or video, although sometimes it can be a block of text. When a meme resonates with many people, it's spread via social platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, texting, and more. The more a meme is spread, the greater the cultural influence it has.

Here's a deeper look into what exactly a meme is, the different types of memes, and some meme examples.

Some a meme sticks around a while because it represents something timeless that continually rings true for people, such as parenthood. Other memes are specific to a specific event or idea.

The Origins of the Term "Meme"

Richard Dawkins meme

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" (rhymes with "team") in his bestselling 1976 book The Selfish Gene. While he had no idea of its future internet-related context, he used the word meme to describe an idea, behavior, or style that rapidly spreads from person to person in a culture. In his book, he likened a meme's spread to that of a virus. The word meme came from the Greek word mimeme, which means imitated thing.

Decades later, Dawkins supported the appropriation of the word meme into the digital world. He said that the new meaning isn't that far from his original explanation.

Memes used to be the domain of 20-somethings. However, internet users of all ages and all levels of digital savviness have adopted memes to express their feelings.

What Makes a Meme

Memes are a worldwide social phenomenon. The more a meme resonates with people, the more they'll share it and the farther it will spread. Memes are usually funny, but often that humor is injected with wry political or social commentary.

Sometimes memes exist for shock value or to teach a life lesson. Other times a single photo or short video will generate hundreds of hilarious interpretations. Sometimes a meme will be appreciated by only a select group of people, and other times a meme will have near-universal appeal.

Here's a look at some popular meme categories and examples to give you a better idea of the breadth and scope of these viral statements.

A meme can be a still photograph or an animated GIF, as long as the content appeals to others in a shareable format.

General Humor Memes

Goal for 2020 Meme

Popular memes are often funny, ranging from silly humor to niche humor to more pointed political humor. Kids, parenting, pets, and everyday life offer endless meme material.

Often one funny image spurs a host of memes, as with this determined-looking toddler clenching his hand into a fist. The above meme mimics our determination on New Year's Eve to finally make positive changes.

The same image represents our feelings of satisfaction and winning when we receive an unexpected windfall.

Baby with fist meme celebrating a win

Sometimes memes offer simple, funny humor most people can enjoy, such as this Pavlov joke:

Pavlov meme

Cute animals figure prominently in harmless-humor memes, such as these adorable ducklings:

Adorable angry duckling memes

Funny memes often appeal to specific groups, such as parents:

Mom meme

Sibling memes are a popular meme subgroup that appeals to many people:

Middle sibling meme

Other classic and famous funny memes include:

Darker-Humored Memes

Man killed to death meme

Some memes have pointed humor. These memes put forth an opinion, argue with others, take a provocative stance, or use darker subjects, such as the above meme that takes advantage of an unfortunate headline.

Other memes tackle more controversial subjects, such as the Area 51 raid plan:

Area 51 raid meme

Or the flat-Earth movement:

Flat Earth meme

Other darker-humored memes include:

Social Memes

A wine meme showing wine aerobics—how to use a wine opener.

Social commentary colors many memes, touching upon subjects such as wine drinking, a hugely popular topic on the internet.

Wine mom meme

Often, memes tackle different takes on societal norms, such as memes about not wanting to have kids:

Meme about the benefits of not having kids

More social commentary memes include:

Conversational Memes

Meanwhile in Idaho meme

In some cases, a meme achieves notoriety as a conversational expression. As in the above example, the phrase "Meanwhile in..." has created a slew of memes showing how life is somewhere else.

Another conversational meme tackles the challenge to "Change My Mind":

Change my mind meme

Other conversational memes include:

World Event Memes

Quarantine weight-gain meme

World events provide endless meme fodder, with humor that's sometimes pointed, sometimes silly, and sometimes painful. As in the above meme, the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing social isolation period generated thousands of memes, capitalizing on the dark humor of a shared experience.

The brief murder hornet scare is another example:

Murder hornets meme

Brexit was a rich source of memes:

Brexit meme

Superbowls provide endless meme fodder, as this 2019 Adam Levine halftime show meme shows:

Adam Levine meme

Other current topic memes:

TV Show Memes

Game of Thrones meme

Our favorite TV shows provide tons of meme material, such as the above example from Game of Thrones. Other meme-TV show favorites include The Office:

The Office meme

More TV shows that generate memes include:

Memes Are Constantly Evolving

There's an endless variety of memes, ranging from mundane, everyday topics to critical life and world events. More are created and shared every day, and new material is constantly available.

If you are inspired by an image or video you come across, make your own meme and see if it resonates with others. Visit Know Your Meme to research a meme or get inspiration.