Internet meme

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An Internet meme, commonly known simply as a meme (/mm/, MEEM), is a cultural item (such as an idea, behaviour, or style) that is spread via the Internet, often through social media platforms. Inspired by the concept of memes proposed by Richard Dawkins in 1972, Internet memes can take various forms, such as images, videos, GIFs, and various other viral sensations. Characteristics of memes include their susceptibility to parody, their use of intertextuality, their propagation in a viral pattern, and their evolution over time.

The term "Internet meme" was formally proposed by Mike Godwin in 1993, with early memes including images and GIFs spread via messageboards, Usenet groups, and email. With the rise of social media platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, memes have become more diverse and can spread quickly. More recent genres include "dank" and surrealist memes, as well as short-form videos such as those uploaded on Vine and TikTok.

Memes are considered an important part of Internet culture. They appear in a range of contexts (such as marketing, finance, politics, social movements, religion, and healthcare), and use of media from various sources can sometimes lead to issues with copyright.


Internet memes sprout from the original concept of memes as an element of culture passed on from person to person; for the former, this spread occurs through online mediums such as social media.[1] Though the terms are related, Internet memes differ in that they are often short-lasting fads, while traditional memes have their success determined by longevity. Internet memes are also seen as less conceptually abstract compared to their traditional counterpart.[2] There is no single format that memes must follow, and they can have various purposes. For example, they often serve as simply light entertainment, but can also be powerful tools for self-expression, connection, social influence, and political subversion.[3]

Two central attributes of Internet memes are creative reproduction and intertextuality.[4] The former refers to the tendency of a popular meme to become subject to parody and imitation, which may occur by mimicry or remix. Mimicry refers to reproduction of a meme in a different setting to the original, for example imitation of the Charlie Bit My Finger viral video by various individuals. Remix uses the original material of the meme, but alters it in some way using technology-based manipulation (such as Photoshop).[4]

Intertextuality may be demonstrated through memes that combine different subjects or aspects of culture. For example, a meme may combine United States politician Mitt Romney's assertion of the phrase "binders full of women" from a 2012 US presidential debate with the Korean pop song Gangnam Style by overlaying the text "my binders full of women exploded" onto a frame from Psy's music video where paper blows around him. This gives new meaning to scene from the music video and blends political and cultural aspects of two different nations.[4]

Memes can involve in-jokes within online communities, which communicate exclusive cultural knowledge unbeknown to general users; through this, a collective group identity can be built.[5] Other memes, in contrast, have broader cultural relevance and can be understood even by those outside the subculture one would associated with the meme.[3][6]

Evolution and propagation

Internet meme propagation graph
Internet memes propagate in a similar pattern to infectious disease, as shown by this SIR model. The pattern, as depicted in red, shows an initial spike in popularity followed by a gradual taper to obscurity.

Internet memes may stay the same or evolve over time. They can "mutate" in their meaning but maintain their structure, or vice versa, such mutation occurring by chance or by deliberate means such as parody.[7] A study by Miltner explored the LOLcats meme and its evolution over time from an in-joke within computer and gaming communities on 4chan to a source of emotional support and humour for a broader audience. The shift of the meme to mainstream use caused it to become unfashionable among the original creators. Miltner explained "as content passes through various communities, it is interpreted in new ways and takes on new connotations; these are usually specific to the needs and desires of that community, and quite often divorced from the original intent of the creator".[5] Often, the modifications to a meme can turn it into a phenomenon that transgresses social and cultural boundaries.[8]

Memes propagate in a viral pattern, "infecting" individuals in a pattern reminiscent of the SIR model for spread of disease.[9] Once a meme has been propagated to enough people, continued spread is inevitable.[10] A study by Coscia reached a set of conclusions concerning the success of a meme's propagation and its longevity. It found that while Internet memes compete for viewer attention, resulting in shorter lifespan, they can also collaborate with each other to achieve greater survival. Also, paradoxically, a meme that experiences a popularity peak significantly higher than average is not expected to survive unless it is unique, whereas a meme with no such peak continues to be used with other memes and thus has greater survivability.[11] Writing for The Washington Post in 2013, Dominic Basulto asserted that with the growth of the Internet and the exploitation of memes by the marketing and advertising industries, memes have come to lose their initial worth as valuable cultural snippets intended to last for generations, and transmit banal rather than intelligent ideas.[12]


Origins and early memes

Typical format of image macros
Image macros were a popular meme format in the 2000s, composed of an image overlaid by large text at the top and bottom.

The word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene as an attempt to explain how aspects of culture replicate, mutate, and evolve (memetics).[13] Emoticons are among the earliest examples of internet memes, specifically the smiley emoticon ":-)" introduced by Scott Fahlman in 1982.[14] The concept of the Internet meme was formally proposed by Mike Godwin in the June 1993 issue of Wired.[15] In 2013, Dawkins characterized an Internet meme as being a meme deliberately altered by human creativity—distinguished from biological genes and his own pre-Internet concept of a meme, which involved mutation by random change and spreading through accurate replication as in Darwinian selection. Dawkins explained that Internet memes are thus a "hijacking of the original idea", evolving the very concept of a meme in this new direction.[16] Furthermore, 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.[11]

Image of lolcat meme
A lolcat image macro, a meme style popular in the mid-2000s

Internet memes grew as a concept in the mid-1990s; examples from this period include the Dancing Baby and Hampster Dance.[17] Memes of this time were primarily spread via messageboards, Usenet groups, and email, and generally lasted for a longer time than modern memes.[18] As the Internet evolved, so did memes. Lolcats originated from imageboard website 4chan (such as lolcats), becoming the prototype of the "image macro" format (an image overlaid by large text).[18] Other early forms of image-based memes included demotivators (parodized motivational posters), photoshopped images, and comics (such as rage comics).[19][20] After the release of YouTube in 2005, video-based memes such as rickrolling and viral videos such as Gangnam Style and the Harlem Shake emerged.[18][21] The appearance of social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, provided additional vessels for the spread of memes, particularly reaction GIFs,[22] and the creation of meme-generating websites made their production more accessible.[18]

Modern memes

Example of an aesthetically "dank" meme, featuring distortion and saturated colours.

"Dank memes" are a more recent phenomenon, referring to deliberately zany or odd memes with features such as oversaturated colours, compression artifacts, crude humour, and overly loud sounds (termed "ear rape").[23][24] The term "dank", which refers to cold, damp places, has been adapted as a way to describe memes as "new" or "cool".[23][25] The term may also be used to describe memes that have become overused and stale to the point of paradoxically becoming humorous again.[26] The phenomenon of dank memes sprouted a subculture called the "meme market", satirising Wall Street and applying the associated jargon (such as "stocks") to internet memes. Originally started on Reddit as /r/MemeEconomy, users jokingly "buy" or "sell" shares in a meme reflecting opinion on the potential popularity of a meme.[27]

Many modern memes make use of humorously absurd and even surrealist themes. Examples of the former include "they did surgery on a grape", a video depicting a Da Vinci Surgical System performing test surgery on a grape,[28] and the "moth meme", a close-up picture of a moth with captions humorously conveying the insect's love of lamps.[29] Surreal memes incorporate layers of irony to make them unique and nonsensical, often as a means of escapism from mainstream meme culture.[30] Elizabeth Bruenig of the Washington Post described this as a "digital update to the surreal and absurd genres of art and literature that characterized the tumultuous early 20th century".[31]

After the success of the application Vine, a format of memes emerged in the form of short videos and scripted sketches. An example is the "What's Nine Plus Ten" meme, a Vine video depicting a child humorously providing the incorrect answer to a maths problem.[32] After the shutdown of Vine in 2016, the de facto replacement became Chinese social network TikTok, which similarly utilises the short video format.[33] The platform has become immensely popular, and is the source of memes such as the "Renegade" dance.[34][35]

By context


The practice of using memes to market products or services has been termed "memetic marketing".[36] Internet memes allow brands to circumvent the conception of advertisements as irksome, making them less overt and more tailored to the likes of their target audience. Marketing personnel may choose to utilise an existing meme, or create a new meme from scratch. Fashion house Gucci employed the former strategy, launching a series of Instagram ads that reimagined popular memes featuring its watch collection. The image macro "The Most Interesting Man in the World" is an example of the latter, a meme generated from an advertising campaign for the Dos Equis beer brand.[37] Products may also gain popularity through internet memes without intention by the producer themselves; for instance, the film Snakes on a Plane became a cult classic after creation of the website by law student Brian Finkelstein.[38]

Use of memes by brands, while often advantageous, has been subject to criticism for seemingly forced, unoriginal, or unfunny usage of memes, which can negatively impact a brand's image.[39] For example, the fast food company Wendy's began a social media-based approach to marketing that was initially met with success (resulting in an almost 50% profit growth that year), but received criticism after sharing a controversial Pepe meme that was negatively perceived by consumers.[40]


Meme stocks are a phenomenon where stock values for a company rise significantly in a short period due to a surge in interest online and subsequent buying by investors. Video game retailer GameStop is recognised as the first meme stock.[41] /r/WallStreetBets, a subreddit where participants discuss stock trading, and Robinhood Markets, a financial services company, became notable in 2021 for their involvement in the popularisation of meme stocks.[42][43]


Internet memes are a medium for fast communication to large online audiences, which has led to their use by those seeking to express a political opinion or actively campaign for (or against) a political entity.[14][44] In some ways, they can be seen as a modern form of the political cartoon, offering a way to democratize political commentary.[45]

Pepe the Frog is a politicized Internet meme that has been used by both the alt-right and Hong Kong protesters.

Among the earliest political memes were those arising from the viral Dean scream, an excerpt from a speech delivered by Vermont governor Howard Dean.[46] Over time, Internet memes have become an increasingly important element in political campaigns, as online communities contribute to broader discourse through the use of memes.[47] For example, Ted Cruz's 2016 Republican presidential bid was damaged by Internet memes that speculated he was the Zodiac Killer.[48]

Research has shown the use of memes during elections has a role to play in informing the public on political themes. A study explored this in relation to the 2017 UK general election, and concluded that memes acted as a widely shared conduit for basic political information to audiences who would usually not seek it out.[49] They also found that memes may play some role in increasing voter turnout.[49]

Some political campaigns have begun to explicitly taken advantage of the increasing influence of memes; as part of the 2020 US presidential campaign, Michael Bloomberg sponsored a number of Instagram accounts (with over 60 million followers collectively) to post memes related to the Bloomberg campaign.[50] The campaign was faulted for treating memes as a commodity that can be bought.[51]

Beyond their use in elections, Internet memes can become symbols for various political ideologies. A salient example is Pepe the Frog, which has been used as a symbol for the alt-right political movement, as well as for pro-democracy ideologies in the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests.[52][53]

Social movements

Internet memes provide significant contributions toward social issues.[6] Memetric structures have enabled social movements to become spreadable pieces of information.[6]

A person performing the Ice Bucket Challenge

During the 2010 It Gets Better Project for LGBTQ+ empowerment, memes were continuously used to promote and uplift LGBTQ+ youth.[54] The Human Rights Campaign equal rights symbol became an internet meme in defending the legalization of same sex marriage.[55]

The Ice Bucket Challenge became a viral meme in promoting and raising money and awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.[6] The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest movement saw a rise in internet memes after gaining attention on social media. All internet memes that were created and shared during the movement were very important in mediated discussions surrounding the OWS. Typical phrases such as "We are the 99%" and "This is what democracy looks like", were remixed into memes and subsequently posted in the discussion board of OWS on popular social media sites such as Reddit, Tumblr, and 4chan. Those who actively participated in the movement conversed through these visuals.[56]

Memes making political or social points are sometimes structured as ostensible thought experiments in various forms, such as, "What if A were B in situation X?" and are framed to provoke a particular response. The conclusions intended, however, do not necessarily follow since there can be multiple factors determining the outcomes in situation X.[57]


Internet memes have also been used in the context of religion.[58][59] Internet memes allow for expression for those who are religious and provides a way for them to connect with others who may have a shared experience.[60]


Internet memes have been used in Nigeria to raise awareness of the COVID-19 pandemic as healthcare professionals used internet memes to spread information on the virus and also promote use of the vaccine.[61] There continues to be discussion on ways to increase adoption of evidence-based practices, and Internet Memes are also a part of this discussion. While little research has been done on the impact of memes, they continue to be spread on social media and widely recreated.[62]


The eligibility of any memes to get copyright protection depends on the copyright law of the country in which such protection is sought. Some of the most popular formats of memes include cinematographic stills, personal or stock photographs, rage comics, and illustrations meant to be a meme,[63] and the copyright implications differ for each of these different formats. There is precedent both for memes to be in violation of copyright and in other memes having copyrights of their own.

If it is found that the meme has made use of a copyrighted work, such as the movie still or photograph without due permission from the original owner, it would amount to copyright infringement. Rage comics and memes created for the sole purpose of becoming memes would normally be original works of the creator and therefore, the question of infringing other copyright work does not arise.[64] In a cinematographic still, part of the entire end product is taken out of context and presented solely for its face value. The still is generally accompanied by a superimposed text of which conveys a distinctive idea or comment, such as the Boromir meme[65] or "Gru's Plan".[66] This does not mean that all memes made from movie still or photographs are infringing copyright. There are defenses available for such use in various jurisdictions which could exempt the meme from attracting liability for the infringement.

United States

This image macro belongs to the public domain in the United States as the background is taken by the Department of Agriculture

Under United States copyright law, a creation receives copyright protection if it satisfies four conditions under 17 U.S.C. § 102.[67] For a meme to get copyright protection, it would have to satisfy four conditions:

  1. It falls under one of the categories of work which is protected under the law
  2. It is an "expression"
  3. It has a modest amount of creativity
  4. It is "fixed".[68]

Memes can be considered pictorial, graphical or motion picture, and so are subject to copyright law.[67] As such, memes are protected under copyright under the same conditions as these mediums, including concepts such as the low threshold of originality for what constitutes creativity (as demonstrated by Feist Publications, Inc., v. Rural Telephone Service Co).[69] Since a meme is essentially a comment, satire, ridicule or expression of an emotion it constitutes the expression of an idea. Memes are contained in the medium of the Internet and so are fixed expressions by 17 U.S.C. § 101.[70]

Fair use

Fair use is a defense under U.S. copyright law which protects work that has made using other copyrighted works.[71] The section provides that if a copyrighted work is reproduced "for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching [...], scholarship or research", it would not amount to infringement. Notably, for memes, the use of the term "such as" in the section denotes that the list is not exhaustive but merely illustrative. Furthermore, the factors mentioned in the section are subjective in nature and the weight of each factor varies on a case to case basis.[72]

The four factors are:

  1. The purpose or character of use,
  2. The nature of the copyrighted work,
  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used, and
  4. Effect on the market.

Many memes are transformative in nature as they have no relation to the original work and the motive behind the communication of the meme is personal, in terms of disseminating humor to the public; such memes, being transformative, would be covered by fair use.[72] However, copying memes that are made for the sole purpose of being memes would not enjoy this protection as there is no transformation—the copying has the same purpose as the original meme which is to communicate humorous or entertaining anecdotes.[73] Purpose and character of use weigh in against memes which have been used for commercial purposes because in those cases, the work has not been created for the communication of humor but for economic gain. For example, Grumpy Cat won $710,001 in a copyright lawsuit against the beverage company Grenade which used the Grumpy Cat image on its roasted coffee line and t-shirts.[74]

The nature of the copyrighted work asks what the differences between the meme and the other material are. This factor applies to many types of memes because the original work is an artistic creation that has been published and thus the latter enjoys protection under copyright which the memes are violating. However, as memes are transformative, this factor does not have much weight.[64]

The amount and substantiality of the portion used tests not only the quantity of the work copied but the quality that is copied as well.[75] Memes copy only a small portion of a complete film, whereas for rage comics and personal photographs, the entire portion has been used to create the meme. Despite this, all categories of memes could fall under fair use because the text that is added to those images adds value, without which it would just be pictures.[72] Moreover, the heart of the work is not affected because the still/picture is taken out of context and portrays something entirely different from what the image originally wanted to depict.[76]

Lastly, the effect on the market offers court analysis on whether the meme would cause harm to the actual market of the original copyright work and also the harm it could cause to the potential market.[77] The target audience for the original work and meme is entirely different as the latter is taken out of the context of the original and created for use and dissemination on social media.[64] Rage comics and memes created for the purpose of being memes are an exception to this because the target audience for both is the same and copied work could infringe on the potential market of the original. Warner Brothers was sued for infringing the Nyan Cat meme by using it in its game Scribblenauts.[78]


Some subjects of memes made money from them through licensing deals. In 2021, in a new version of this concept several subjects of memes sold NFTs through auctions.[79] Ben Lashes, who managed numerous memes, said sales of these as NFTs had made $2 million and established memes as serious art.[80] One example of how this idea works is the case of "Disaster Girl", based on a photo of Zoe Roth at age 4 taken in Mebane, North Carolina in January 2005.[80] After the photo became famous and was used hundreds of times without permission, Roth decided to sell the original copy[81] as an NFT, for the equivalent of US$486,716.[82] The smart contract was programmed to give the family 10 percent of proceeds when the NFT was sold.[81]


Under Section 2(c)[83] of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957, a meme could be classified as an 'artistic work' which states that an artistic work includes painting, sculpture, drawing (including a diagram, map, chart or plan), an engraving or a photograph, whether or not any such work possesses artistic quality.[68] The section uses the phrase "whether or not possessing artistic quality", the memes that are rage comics or those such as Keyboard Cat would enjoy protection as they are original creations in the form a painting, drawing, photograph or short video clip, despite not having artistic quality.[84] Memes that made from cinematograph still or photographs, the original image in the background for the meme would also be protected as the picture or the still from the series/movie is an 'artistic work'.[63] These memes are a modification of that already existing artistic work with some little amount of creativity and therefore, they would also enjoy copyright protection.

Fair dealing

India follows a fair dealing approach as an exception to copyright infringement under Section 52(1)(a) for the purposes of private or personal use, criticism or review.[85] The analysis requires three steps: the amount and substantiality of dealing, the purpose of copying, and the effect on potential markets.

The amount of sustainability of dealing asks about how much of the original work is used in the meme, or how the meme transforms the original content. A meme makes use to existing copyright work whether it is a cinematograph still, rage comic, personal photograph or a meme made for the purpose of being a meme. However, since a meme is made for comedic purposes, taken out of context of the original work, they are transforming the work and creating a new work.[68]

The purpose of copying factors in the purpose of the meme compared to the purpose of the original work. Under Section 52(1)(a), the purpose is restricted to criticism or review.[85] A meme, as long as it is a parody or a criticism of the original work would be protected under the exception, but once an element of commercialization comes in, they would no longer be exempted and because the purpose no longer falls under the those mentioned in the section .[84] When the Indian comedic group All India Bakchod (AIB) parodied Game of Thrones through a series of memes, the primary purpose was to advertise products of companies that have endorsed the group and thus was not fair dealing.[73]

Memes generally do not have an effect on the potential market for a work. There must be no intention on part of the infringer to compete with the original owner of the work and derive profits from it.[86] Since memes are generally meant for comedic value and have no intention to supplant the market of the original creator, they fall within the ambit of this section.[84]

See also


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Further reading

  • Blackmore, Susan (March 16, 2000). The Meme Machine (Volume 25 of Popular Science Series ed.). Oxford University Press, 2000. p. 288. ISBN 978-0-19-286212-9. Retrieved November 30, 2012.
  • Shifman, Limor (November 8, 2013). Memes in Digital Culture. MIT Press, 2013.
  • Wiggins, Bradley E. (September 22, 2014). 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. 17 (11): 1886–1906. doi:10.1177/1461444814535194. S2CID 30729349.
  • Distin, Kate (2005). The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge.

External links

Media related to Internet memes at Wikimedia Commons