What is a Meme?

The more you know about memes, the cooler you are

Leo DiCaprio toasting meme. screenshot
Leo DiCaprio toasting meme. screenshot

A 'meme' is a virally-transmitted 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 theStraightDope.com, the concept of memes "is either really deep or really, really obvious."

Meme Examples 

Most modern internet memes have some element of humor: 

  • Hey Girl, a take on actor Ryan Gosling's potential as the perfect boyfriend
  • TMIMITW, from a Dos Equis beer commercial 
  • Leonardo Dicaprio toasting, well, almost anything
  • Lolcats, a pet lovers creation
  • Tell Me More, with comic Gene Wilder slyly mocking someone's knowledge

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

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

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

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 "meme" word 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 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.

On second thought  . . .