What is a meme? Here’s everything you need to know

Confused about memes? That’s partly the point. Internet culture is fast moving, ever changing, and from the outside looking in, can be completely baffling and nonsensical. Like the hieroglyphics of societies’ past, you either need to be a fluent speaker or possess a Rosetta Stone-like resource to understand them. What is a meme? It’s a cultural shorthand that, like all forms of communication, evolves with those who use it.

Nobody can claim to know or understand every single meme that exists. They are simply too numerous, too varied, and often too personal to the individuals creating and sharing them. But what we can do is learn to interpret them, or at least understand where they’re coming from and what their intentions are.

What makes a meme a meme?

Even if memes seem impossible to understand, chances are you’ve come across at least one over the years that’s made sense to you. Whether you partook in the Ice Bucket Challenge, have a “Keep calm” mug on your desk at work, or used the words “Fail” or “Winning,” ironically or not, then you’ve partaken in a meme. You heard of it through the grapevine, you understood it, you changed its context, and you appropriated it for your own usage. Those are the key components of what makes a meme a meme.

While an outright definition of a meme is hard to nail down, the term is most often associated with an image or video that portrays a particular concept or idea and is spread through social platforms on the internet. That idea proliferates through social media, forums, instant messaging apps, and even news sites. The images and videos which convey the message are often altered and built upon, evolving the original idea into something else entirely, or simply posted with a new caption to portray an altered form of it.

Context can have a huge impact on what a meme means as well, or how relevant it is to the recipient.

Whatever the message, though, a meme can impart a lot more information that simple text alone can’t. In the same way as emojis have been used to convey complex ideas of mood or emotion, a meme can impart a complex idea, state of mind, or shared understanding far quicker than typing and reading it in pure text form can. 

From dancing babies to the Momo Challenge

Some researchers have traced the idea of a meme back hundreds of years, but its modern interpretation is considered by most to have been coined by British evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. He described the idea of a meme in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, as a cultural entity or idea that replicates, evolves, and is passed from person to person. He couldn’t know it at the time, but that term would later be used to describe an infinite number of permutations of different phrases, images, sounds and videos, all spread via the internet in an effort to share ideas and thoughts quickly and succinctly.

Most would consider the first internet meme to be the dancing baby. Sometimes referred to as “Baby Cha-Cha,” the short gif of an animated baby dancing became a viral hit in 1996. It was shared widely through email chains and showed up in popular TV shows like Ally McBeal. It wasn’t until the 2010s that memes became a cultural phenomenon in their own right, though. Today they are one of the major ways people communicate online, with millions of permutations of the most popular ones.

The memes that have come and gone over the years are too many to count and too varied to cover in detail (although we did collect all the most famous ones), but you could include everything from planking, to Good Guy Greg, to the Momo Challenge on the list. They are incredibly varied, ever changing, and impossible to pin down in a neat and defined category.

The speed of their sharing and creation is only accelerating too, so attempting to learn or understand all of them is an impossible task. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to wrap our head around the most important ones.

How to understand a meme

Some memes are easier to understand than others. That easiest are known as an “image macro” meme , which usually involves some sort of expressive image and some block text. They’re emphatic and designed to help convey an emotional state in a manner that’s simple to understand. They acknowledge a shared experience among the creator and the viewer.

Others can be a little harder to nail down. Something like Slender Man can seem scary or dangerous. Others might be bizarrely obscure, referencing a particular episode of a TV show or movie that aired decades ago. Often the origins of such memes can be buried in context so deep that understanding their origins requires dedicated research.

How important that is depends why you want to understand the meme. If you simply want to use it yourself, picking up the rough idea of what it means from the latest usage of it is often enough to create your own and be in on the joke.

If you are more interested in learning what it means so that you can decide if it’s something you want your children, students, or dependents interacting with, the best person to ask to learn more about it is them. Resources like Know Your Meme, You Should Have Seen This, and even Wikipedia (for the most popular ones) can help explain where a meme comes from and how it may have changed over time. But memes are ever-evolving. How the people you’re trying to protect use those memes could be completely personal to them. They may even have their own memes which aren’t widely spread.

Most memes are made with humor in mind, and the impact that they have is entirely dependent on how they are viewed and used by those that do. If someone you know is sending or viewing memes that you don’t understand, ask them to explain it to you. If necessary, you can then explain the wider significance of what that might mean outside of the communication tools and platforms it has spread on.

You could even make some of your own if you feel so inclined. Sites like ImgFlip and Kapwing’s Meme Maker are a great place to start. If you want more help, we have a great guide that will walk you through the process step by step.

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