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Internet meme

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An Internet meme (/ˈmm/ MEEM) is an activity, concept, catchphrase or piece of media which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet.[1] Some notable examples include posting a photo of people lying down in public places (called "planking") and uploading a short video of people dancing to the Harlem Shake.

A meme is "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture".[2] An Internet meme may take the form of an image, hyperlink, video, picture, website, or hashtag. It may be just a word or phrase, including an intentional misspelling. These small movements tend to spread from person to person via social networks, blogs, direct email, or news sources. They may relate to various existing Internet cultures or subcultures, often created or spread on various websites, or by Usenet boards and other such early-internet communications facilities. Fads and sensations tend to grow rapidly on the Internet, because the instant communication facilitates word-of-mouth transmission.

The word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as an attempt to explain the way cultural information spreads;[3] Internet memes are a subset of this general meme concept specific to the culture and environment of the Internet. In 2013 Dawkins characterized an Internet meme as being a meme deliberately altered by human creativity—distinguished from biological genes and Dawkins' pre-Internet concept of a meme which involved mutation by random change and spreading through accurate replication as in Darwinian selection.[4] Dawkins explained that Internet memes are thus a "hijacking of the original idea," the very idea of a meme having mutated and evolved in this new direction.[5] Further, Internet memes carry an additional property that ordinary memes do not—Internet memes leave a footprint in the media through which they propagate (for example, social networks) that renders them traceable and analyzable.[6]

Internet memes are a subset that Susan Blackmore called temes—memes which live in technological artifacts instead of the human mind.[7]

Image macros are often confused with internet memes and are often miscited as such, usually by their creators. However, there is a key distinction between the two. Primarily this distinction lies within the subject's recognizability in internet pop-culture. While such an image may display an existing meme, or in fact a macro itself may even eventually become a meme, it does not qualify as one until it reaches approximately the same level of mass recognition as required for a person to be considered a celebrity.


In the early days of the Internet, such content was primarily spread via email or Usenet discussion communities. Messageboards and newsgroups were also popular because they allowed a simple method for people to share information or memes with a diverse population of internet users in a short period. They encourage communication between people, and thus between meme sets, that do not normally come in contact. Furthermore, they actively promote meme-sharing within the messageboard or newsgroup population by asking for feedback, comments, opinions, etc. This format is what gave rise to early internet memes, like the Hampster Dance.[citation needed] Another factor in the increased meme transmission observed over the internet is its interactive nature. Print matter, radio, and television are all essentially passive experiences requiring the reader, listener, or viewer to perform all necessary cognitive processing; in contrast the social nature of the Internet allows phenomena to propagate more readily. Many phenomena are also spread via web search engines, internet forums, social networking services, social news sites, and video hosting services. Much of the Internet's ability to spread information is assisted from results found through search engines, which can allow users to find memes even with obscure information.[8][9]

Evolution and propagation

An Internet meme may stay the same or may evolve over time, by chance or through commentary, imitations, parody, or by incorporating news accounts about itself. Internet memes can evolve and spread extremely rapidly, sometimes reaching world-wide popularity within a few days. Internet memes usually are formed from some social interaction, pop culture reference, or situations people often find themselves in. Their rapid growth and impact has caught the attention of both researchers and industry.[10] Academically, researchers model how they evolve and predict which memes will survive and spread throughout the Web. Commercially, they are used in viral marketing where they are an inexpensive form of mass advertising.

One empirical approach studied meme characteristics and behavior independently from the networks in which they propagated, and reached a set of conclusions concerning successful meme propagation.[6] For example, the study asserted that Internet memes not only compete for viewer attention generally resulting in a shorter life, but also, through user creativity, memes can collaborate with each other and achieve greater survival.[6] Also, paradoxically, an individual meme that experiences a popularity peak significantly higher than its average popularity is not generally expected to survive unless it is unique, whereas a meme with no such popularity peak keeps being used together with other memes and thus has greater survivability.[6]

Theoretical studies on media psychology and communication have aimed to characterise and analyse the concept and representations in order to make it accessible for the academic research.[11] Thus, internet memes can be regarded as a unit of information which replicates via internet. This unit can replicate or mutate. This mutation instead of being generational[3] follows more a viral pattern,[7] giving the internet memes generally a short life. Other theoretical problems with the internet memes are their behaviour, their type of change, and their teleology.[11]

Writing for The Washington Post in 2013, Dominic Basulto asserted that with the growth of the Internet and the practices of the marketing and advertising industries, memes have come to transmit fewer snippets of human culture that could survive for centuries as originally envisioned by Dawkins, and instead transmit banality at the expense of big ideas.[12]

Image memes

Typical format for internet meme images.

More accurately characterized as an image macro, the format most widely used consists of:

1. Text, typically in the font Impact, centered at the top and bottom of the image. White text with a black border is typically used because it is easily readable on almost any background color.

2. Image to be placed under the text. These are typically a set of “known images” that are understood by many internet users, such as Bad Luck Brian. However, by using the aforementioned typographic style, any image can take on the context or aesthetic of an internet image meme.[13]


Public relations, advertising, and marketing professionals have embraced Internet memes as a form of viral marketing and guerrilla marketing to create marketing "buzz" for their product or service. The practice of using memes to market products or services is known as memetic marketing.[14] Internet memes are seen as cost-effective, and because they are a (sometimes self-conscious) fad, they are therefore used as a way to create an image of awareness or trendiness.

Marketers, for example, use Internet memes to create interest in films that would otherwise not generate positive publicity among critics. The 2006 film Snakes on a Plane generated much publicity via this method.[15] Used in the context of public relations, the term would be more of an advertising buzzword than a proper Internet meme, although there is still an implication that the interest in the content is for purposes of trivia, ephemera, or frivolity rather than straightforward advertising and news.

Examples of memetic marketing include the singing ad campaign, the "Nope, Chuck Testa" meme from an advertisement for taxidermist Chuck Testa, and the Dumb Ways to Die public announcement ad campaign by Metro Trains Melbourne.

See also

Further reading

  • Blackmore, Susan (March 16, 2000). The Meme Machine (Volume 25 of Popular Science Series ed.). Oxford University Press, 2000. p. 288. ISBN 019286212X. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  • Shifman, Limor (Nov 8, 2013). Memes in Digital Culture. MIT Press, 2013. 
  • Wiggins, Bradley E. (2014, Sept. 22). How the Russia-Ukraine crisis became a magnet for memes. The Conversation.
  • Wiggins, Bradley E., & Bowers, G. Bret. (2014). Memes as genre: A Structurational Analysis of the Memescape. New Media & Society. 1-21.
  • Distin, K. (2005). The selfish meme: A critical reassessment. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge


  1. ^ Schubert, Karen (2003-07-31). "Bazaar goes bizarre". USA Today. Retrieved 2007-07-05. 
  2. ^ Meme. Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  3. ^ a b Dawkins, Richard (1989), The Selfish Gene (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, p. 192, ISBN 0-19-286092-5, We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory', or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'. 
  4. ^ Solon, Olivia (June 20, 2013). "Richard Dawkins on the internet's hijacking of the word 'meme'". Wired UK. Archived from the original on July 9, 2013. 
  5. ^ Dawkins, Richard (June 22, 2013). "Just for Hits". The Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors' Showcase.  (video of speech)
  6. ^ a b c d Coscia, Michele (April 5, 2013). "Competition and Success in the Meme Pool: a Case Study on" (PDF). Center for International Development, Harvard Kennedy School (copyright 2013 Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence).  Abstract of Coscia paper. Paper explained for laymen by Mims, Christopher (June 28, 2013). "Why you’ll share this story: The new science of memes". Quartz. Archived from the original on July 18, 2013. 
  7. ^ a b Zetter, K. (29 February 2008). "Humans Are Just Machines for Propagating Memes". Wired website. 
  8. ^ "Memes On the Internet". Oracle Thinkquest. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  9. ^ Marshall, Garry. "The Internet and Memetics". School of Computing Science, Middlesex University. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 
  10. ^ Kempe, David; Kleinberg, Jon; Tardos, Éva (2003). "Maximizing the spread of influence through a social network". Int. Conf. on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining. ACM Press. 
  11. ^ a b Castaño, Carlos (2013). "Defining and Characterising the Concept of Internet Meme". Revista CES Psicología 6 (2): 82–104. ISSN 2011-3080. Retrieved 23 April 2015. 
  12. ^ Basulto, Dominic (July 5, 2013). "Have Internet memes lost their meaning?". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on July 9, 2013. 
  13. ^ Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. Print.
  14. ^ Flor, Nick (December 11, 2000). "Memetic Marketing". InformIT. Retrieved 2011-07-29. 
  15. ^ Carr, David (29 May 2006). "Hollywood bypassing critics and print as digital gets hotter". New York Times. Retrieved 16 October 2012. 

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