What is a Meme?

The more you know about memes, the cooler you are

A meme is a virally-transmitted photograph that is embellished with text that pokes fun at a cultural symbol or social idea.

The majority of modern memes are captioned photos that are intended to be funny, often as a way to publicly ridicule human behavior. Other memes can be videos and verbal expressions. Some memes have heavier and more philosophical content.

The world of memes (which rhymes with 'teams') is noteworthy for two reasons: it is a worldwide social phenomenon, and memes behave like a mass of infectious flu and cold viruses, traveling from person to person quickly through social media.

According to Cecil Adams of StraightDope.com, the concept of memes "is either really deep or really, really obvious."

Humor Meme Examples 

Ryan Gosling saying

Most modern internet memes have some element of humor:

  • Hey Girl: A take on actor Ryan Gosling's potential as the perfect boyfriend — sometimes he's saying "Thank you" sometimes he's just telling you what day of the week it is.
  • TMIMITW (the most interesting man in the world): From a Dos Equis beer commercial.
  • Leonardo Dicaprio: The famous shot from The Great Gatsby of toasting, well, almost anything.
  • Lolcats: A pet lovers creation.
  • Tell Me More: Comic Gene Wilder slyly mocking someone's knowledge.

Shock Meme Examples 

A mean meme of Dr. Phil saying

Some internet memes are also about shock-value and drama: 

Urban Myth Meme Examples 

Mel Gibson was NOT horribly disfigured nor the inspiration for The Man Without a Face. But it makes a great meme.

Other memes are urban myths that tout some kind of life lesson:

Social Meme Examples

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

A few internet memes are about deeper philosophical content or social commentary:

Conversational Meme Examples

u mad bro?

In some cases, a meme achieves notoriety as a conversational expression:

Who Uses Memes?

The majority of internet memes are transmitted by 20-something millennials. This is because that age group is hyper connected and enamored with social media. The average age of meme users is increasing, though, as Generation X and Baby Boomer users discover the entertainment fun of spreading memes to their spreads.

Who (Sort of) Invented Memes?

The word meme was first introduced by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in 1976. Meme comes from the Greek word mimema (meaning "something imitated", American Heritage Dictionary).

Dawkins described memes as a being a form of cultural propagation, which is a way for people to transmit social memories and cultural ideas to each other. Not unlike the way that DNA and life will spread from location to location, a meme idea will also travel from mind to mind.

How Memes Become Popular

The internet, by sheer virtue of its instant communication, is how we now spread modern memes to each other's inboxes. A link to a YouTube video of Rick Astley, a file attachment with a Stars Wars Kid movie, an email signature with a Chuck Norris quote — these are a few examples of modern meme symbols and culture spreading through online media. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, of course, continue to lead the pack for instantly viral memes.

The bulk of internet memes will continue to be humor and shock-value curiosities, as these grab people's attention more quickly than deeper meme content. But as users become more sophisticated in their thinking, expect memes to become progressively more intellectual and philosophical while referencing less-sophisticated pop-culture icons such as Spongebob. On second thought...