Ask three people what internet memes are, and you’ll get three different answers. Everyone experiences memes; they have been around since Richard Dawkins coined the term “memes” (rhymes with “genes”) and the concept of memetics in 1976 in order to talk about the way culture is spread from person to person, just as genetic material is spread by replication.
Academics regarded the field of memetics as a genre of communication studies and conducted scholarly research on the transmission of linguistic cultural artifacts from the 1970s through the 1990s. The advent of computer networks spawned the sub-genre of internet memes, spread online via social networks.
Beyond their traditional linguistic significance and as examples of intertextuality, internet memes may be viewed as folklore, as political semiotic, as a creative outlet, or as a vehicle to reach people using humor. Creating and sharing internet memes is a way for individuals to feel part of a collective or group identity. Memes can serve as a means for ordinary people to “brand” themselves in society, or as a marketing tool for advertisers to brand their products. Disseminating internet memes is also a way to demonstrate digital literacy within a culture or subculture. This snapshot will define internet memes, discuss the uses of internet memes, describe how internet memes are created, and address several editorial concerns related to internet memes.
Internet Memes Defined
The most common definition of an internet meme is a brief text with a graphic which expresses an idea that is readily understood by the target audience; the content is user-generated and transmitted from person to person, sometimes with changes. The graphic might be an image of “Uncle Sam Wants You,” with text changes to produce new meanings.
Purposeful grammatical deviations are common, even if nonsensical, and often become standard internet meme formulas, as in “All Your Data Are Belong To Us.”
Dr. Limor Shifman, an expert in the field of internet memes, refines the definition of internet memes to extend beyond a single text with graphics to “(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form and/or stance; (b) that were created with awareness of each other; and (c) were circulated, imitated and/or transformed via the internet by many users.” Internet memes comprise digital content creatively modified by users.
Internet Memes vs. Viral Memes
Just as all ravens are crows, but not all crows are ravens, all viral memes are a type of internet meme, but not all internet memes “go viral” reaching billions of people. While the terms are frequently used interchangeably, according to digital folklorist Lynne McNeill, “digital content that circulates widely without evolving [emphasis added] would be classified as viral content rather than memetic content.” When individuals start creating their own versions of viral content (often as parodies or adapted for a particular geographical area), these adaptations become memetic.
One well-known example of viral content morphing into internet memes is the 2012 “Gangnam Style” music video by a South Korean rapper named Psy. This video was the first to have “gone viral,” crossing the “one billion views” mark. It has inspired people, organizations and institutions across the world to imitate the video’s music and the “horse-riding” dance steps with different characters, in different locales, as a popular internet meme. One such viral video produced by a government agency promotes the work done by the Johnson Space Center of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): NASA Johnson Style. As of this writing, this memetic parody of the original Gangnam Style dance video has been viewed over 6,412,359 times.
Using Internet Memes
Memes function as a form of colloquial wisdom, like traditional proverbs, and are shared on social media for several reasons.
Some internet memes are used to give advice, often with a humorous twist. For example, the traditional adage “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade” became an internet meme designed to make people laugh: “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make A Whiskey Sour. For God’s Sake, We’re Adults Now, People!”
Other Internet memes are used to express social commentary, again often humorously addressing serious issues. Kermit the Frog, a Muppet character from Sesame Street – the children’s show known around the world – is often used to comment on social issues, ending with the tag line, “… But That’s None Of My Business.”
For example, it is common knowledge that recipients of federal or state financial assistance in the U.S. often use their welfare payments for expensive personal items, like a pair of designer shoes, rather than for food or essentials needed to support their families. The Kermit the Frog internet meme shown below demonstrates this usage: “No Money For Food Or Child Support, But You’re In Line For The New Jordan’s … But That’s None Of My Business.”
People like to share their political points of view on social media, and use internet memes to do so. With humor at its base, the 2016 U.S. presidential election inspired people of all political persuasions to create internet memes to point out candidates’ weaknesses, inaccurate claims, or platform inconsistencies.
For example, during the 2016 presidential election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton stated “Anyone Not Willing To Accept The Results Of An Election Is A Danger To Democracy!” Still unwilling to accept the fact that President Donald J. Trump won the election two years ago, this internet meme teases: “Unwilling To Accept The Results Of An Election Is A Danger To Democracy … Unless It’s Me!”
Controversial issues, like racism in America, are also frequently the topic of internet memes. The Successful Black Man is a popular vehicle to address issues of negative racial stereotypes in America. This internet meme always features the same, well-dressed African-American man photographed with the same brown and beige background graphic, and exposes racial biases by playing on the expectations of its possibly racist readers.
For example, one negative stereotype about African-American men of a lower socioeconomic class is that they are routinely involved in domestic violence attacks. Using the humorous “surprise ending,” this internet meme begins with the racist negative stereotype, and ends with a factual challenge to that stereotype: “I Always Beat My Wife … At Chess.”
Internet memes express a culture’s beliefs and tell its stories, using short texts and graphics, and pass along these narratives from person to person, via social networks.
Limor Shifman refers to memes as “socially constructed public discourses” that “represent diverse voices and perspectives” (Shifman 2014, 4), and these constructions, or shared meanings, depend on “insider knowledge” of a culture, or sub-culture. That “insider knowledge” is what creates a community of people sharing humorous internet memes online.
Lost in Translation
Not all internet memes translate from one culture to another. While the Successful Black Man internet meme might not work in Israel, the same concept – addressing a negative stereotype of a group of people – is evident in an Israeli internet meme about Ultra-Orthodox Jews who typically do not watch TV or films, and don’t use the internet. “Akiva, The Humanist Ultra-Orthodox Man” identifies an exceptional individual who deviates from the stereotype of the very religious community by claiming, In Our House, We Never Watch Movies … That Are of Lower Quality Than DVD–RIP. This internet meme has the same “surprise twist” as Successful Black Man, challenging stereotypical assumptions in an Israeli-specific context.
Another example of a culturally-specific internet meme is one from a Middle Eastern country which experiences frequent electricity cutoffs. Without the insider knowledge that, during the presidential elections in Egypt in the summer of 2014, a frequent topic of conversation was the planned power cuts and electricity infrastructure failures in Cairo, the meaning of this internet meme isn’t obvious or funny:
Using Internet Memes to Effect Change
Internet memes can organize millions of people to take to the streets advocating for social or political change. For example, people were persuaded to participate in political protests by the millions during the Arab Spring movement. Internet memes circulating on Facebook and other social media networks empowered people protesting against their governments to safely express their political opinions and communicate with one another in the “public square” of cyberspace.
One such internet meme taunts Syrian President Bashar al‑Assad, whose regime was challenged by protestors. President Assad is pictured boasting, “Failure Awaits the United States As In All Previous Wars” above images of three now-deceased leaders: Libyan President Muammar al‑Gaddafi, Saudi al‑Qaeda founder Osama bin-Laden, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein – all of whom were defeated in their wars against the United States – with “wat” (the phonetic “what”) and shocked expressions on their modified faces.
Creating and Identifying Internet Memes
Generating internet memes can be done using templates that allow users to insert text above and below graphics selected from galleries of existing images, and to customize the text formatting and colors (e.g., https://imgflip.com/memegenerator and https://memegenerator.net/). Other sites allow users to upload photographs or images and customize formatting (e.g., https://www.kapwing.com/meme-maker). Dozens of such sites exist, and most are simple enough for the youngest netizens to navigate.
Tools used to identify the origin of a particular internet meme include websites that embed timestamps and watermarks in image files, such as Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/) and Tumblr (https://www.tumblr.com/), and reverse-image search engines, which allow users to upload an image or URL, such as Google (https://reverse.photos/) and TinEye (https://www.tineye.com).
Documenting Internet Memes
This year marks the tenth anniversary of Know Your Meme, the first and to date the most authoritative attempt to collect, source, categorize, and archive internet memes. Know Your Meme developed from an online video series in which meme “experts” (complete with white lab coats) explained one meme per episode: its origin, its spread, and its context in an online culture that was not well understood at that time. Today, Know Your Meme has a team of professional researchers, journalists, and editors who confirm and document the origin and historical use of internet memes.
Mainstream media rely on Know Your Meme to fact-check references to memes, which are organized by categories, including:
- Cultures (art, food, music, religion, sport, technology)
- Events (disasters, flash mobs, elections, holidays)
- People (activists, actors, artists, athletes, politicians)
- Subcultures (Japanese anime and manga, cartoons, comic books)
- Subcategories of internet memes (advertisements, animals, axioms, cliché, conspiracy theory, dance, emoticons, hashtags, hoax, optical illusions, parodies, photoshop, pop culture references, reaction, remix)
Classification of Internet Memes
Organization of internet memes by category is sufficient for Know Your Meme. However, in 2014, when the U.S. Library of Congress added Know Your Meme to its American Folklife Center web archives, it assigned multiple subject headings to the categorized memes as access points for researchers in this communications genre.
Based on the work of memeticists like Susan Blackmore who believe that ideas are “self-replicating ‘life forms’ that spread themselves via human consciousness,” and evolve over time, the Library of Congress subject heading classifications include, beyond the basic term Memes, the related terms: Contagion (Social Psychology) and Knowledge, Theory of in order to identify scholarly works that consider ideas as “contagious living organisms called memes.”
Following the recommendations of the U.S. Library of Congress, Academic Search Complete, a widely-used research database indexing scholarly journals, defines the scope of its Memes subject heading as “[covering] works on ideas and concepts that can be viewed as spreading contagiously, including memes specific to internet culture.” Under Memetics, are “works on the study of memes and the concept in general.” Related subject headings include Internet & Culture, Internet & Society, Language Conventions in Memes, Memes–Wit and Humor, Digital Media, and Participatory Culture.
Citation Style Guides for Internet Memes
Editorial concerns about internet memes extend beyond categorization, subject classification, and the identification of meme originators. There are rules governing the citation of memes in references, works cited, or bibliographies. Most style guides provide rules for citing digital images, which is what internet memes are.
Editor Ella Chochrek advises authors and editors to cite memes using:
- Title of meme (if no title, write a short description)
- Title of website where the meme was published
- Publisher of the website where the meme was published
- URL of the website where the meme was published
- Date the meme was published (if known)
- Date the meme was accessed or retrieved
Using the internet meme, “I Regret Nothing” (an LOLcat meme), found at http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/257271-i-regret-nothing, and citing according to the MLA 8th Edition, APA 6th Edition, and Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition, the following examples are provided:
- MLA 8th Edition:
Title of meme or a description of the internet meme image and text. Title of the website where it was published, Publisher, Day Mo. Year it was published (if known), URL (remove http:// or https://).
I regret nothing meme. Know Your Meme, Literally Media, 24 Feb. 2002, knowyourmeme.com/photos/257271-i-regret-nothing.
- APA 6th Edition:
Title of meme or a description of the internet meme image and text [Digital image]. (Year Published). Retrieved from URL.
I regret nothing [Digital image]. (2002). Retrieved from http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/257271-i-regret-nothing.
- Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition:
Title or description. Digital image. Website Title. Mo. Day, Year Published. Accessed Mo. Day, Year (only include if there is no publication date). URL.
I Regret Nothing. Digital image. Know Your Meme. Feb. 24, 2002. http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/257271-i-regret-nothing.
Internet memes become a significant part of a shared culture when they are imitated by large numbers of people and institutions, persist over time, and are accessible in archives and databases for future reference.
Understanding the phenomenon of internet memes, on topics specific to our own culture or on global themes, helps us understand ourselves and our world. Whether or not we choose to participate in this digital culture by creating and sharing internet memes, they exist and influence social behavior and political processes. Memes – ideas shared and discussed – have always been a part of human society. In the pre-digital era, we simply called the transmission of ideas and the wisdom of the crowd “folklore.” In the 21st century, developing internet meme literacy is fundamental to our successful participation in society, and to our effectiveness as editors of digital text.
 Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
 Memetic pertains to memes, not to be confused with Mimetic which pertains to mimesis: the representation of the real world in art and literature, or the deliberate imitation of the behavior of one group of people by another. Adapted from wikidiff.com/mimetic/memetic
 Wiggins, Bradley E. and G. Bret Bowers. “Memes As Genre: A Structurational Analysis of the Memescape.” New Media and Society. 26 May 2014. DOI: 10.1177/1461444814535194
 Intertextuality: the interrelationship between a text and other texts taken as basic to the creation or interpretation of the text. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intertextuality
 “All Your Data Are Belong To Us.” Digital image. Time, Inc. 25 Feb. 2001. Based on a broken English translation from the Japanese version of the arcade game, Zero Wing, which referred to the U.S. National Security Agency’s secret data collection program. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_your_base_are_belong_to_us
 Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. (Essential Knowledge Series). Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2014. pp.7-8.
 McNeill, Lynne. “LOL and the World LOLs With You: Memes as Modern Folklore.” Phi Kappa Phi Forum. Winter 2017, p.20.
 When Life Gives You Lemons. Digital image. How To Be A Dad. 08 Jan. 2017. me.me/i/when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-a-whiskey-sour-for-17928867
 I Always Beat My Wife … At Chess. Digital image. Know Your Meme. 2010. knowyourmeme.com/memes/successful-black-man/photos
 “Akiva, The Humanist Ultra-Orthodox Man” meme. 10Gag.co.il., n.d., in Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. p.165.
 DVD-RIP refers to a technology allowing movies on DVD to be copied by computer software to a cellphone or tablet. lifehacker.com/how-to-rip-a-dvd-to-your-computer-5809765
 Dr. Error. Where Do You Live. Digital image. ASA7BE Sarcasm Society. 2014. in El Khachab, Chihab. “Living in Darkness: Internet Humour and the Politics of Egypt’s Electricity Infrastructure.” Anthropology Today. 32(4): 21-24. August 2016.
 “Arab Spring.” [A] wave of pro-democracy protests and uprisings that took place in the Middle East and North Africa beginning in 2010-2011, challenging some of the region’s entrenched authoritarian regimes. Demonstrators expressing political and economic grievances faced violent crackdowns by their countries’ security forces. … Protests calling for the resignation of Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad broke out … in mid-March 2011 and spread through the country. The Assad regime responded with a brutal crackdown against protesters. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 01 Jan. 2015.
Tiffany, Kaitlyn. “The Story of the Internet, As Told By Know Your Meme.” The Verge. March 6, 2018. www.theverge.com/2018/3/6/17044344/know-your-meme-10-year-anniversary-brad-kim-interview
 Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press, 1999. Blackmore is a memeticist whose study of memes is based on a Darwinian evolutionary model; she believes that ideas pass from brain to brain like a biological organism or physical virus, and evolve over time.
 Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. (Essential Knowledge Series). Cambridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2014. pp.10-11. See also: www.ted.com/talks/susan_blackmore_on_memes_and_temes
 Academic Search Complete is a fee-based, multi-disciplinary database providing access to full-text articles from almost 7,000 popular and scholarly journals. It is one of 375 full-text databases hosted by EBSCO’s research service. www.ebsco.com/products/research-databases/academic-search-complete
 LOL is the acronym for Laugh Out Loud; one category of humorous internet memes is devoted to cats.
© Aviva Adler, 2018. All rights reserved.