(Fair Use) Pat Corbett
Richard Dawkins’ definition of a meme no longer works with today’s internet culture.
What is a meme? A lot of explainers will begin by telling you that “meme” was a term coined by noted biologist and Twitter crank Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. You can go ahead and throw those explainers away, though, because the way we use “meme” today is miles away from what Dawkins originally intended, and you don’t need a degree in biology to understand it.
Dawkins envisioned a meme as a thought virus, an idea that seems to spreads naturally and proves more resilient than competing ideas. An internet meme, however, is something else entirely. It’s not just an idea: It has form. It can be an image, a video, a cartoon character, or a Twitter catchphrase—the type of media doesn’t matter as long as people can interact with it and make it their own. Once it’s been repeated, reposted, and remixed across social networks until it’s woven into the zeitgeist, it’s a meme.
A meme has the feeling of an “inside joke,” but it’s shared with thousands or even millions of people, not just your small social circle. Despite this huge reach, memes still provide the enjoyment of mutual recognition and “getting it.” In 2017, kids quote memes to each other in the same casual way that ’90s kids quoted The Simpsons. Unless you’re not spending much time on Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit, trying to understand memes can feel like trying to understand Simpsons references without ever watching the show. Once you get it, though, they’re a rich, communal form of entertainment with practically unlimited potential.
A meme can be a fictional character, like a sad frog named Pepe or a happy one known as “Dat Boi.” It can be a living person, like 2016 presidential debate highlight Ken Bone, who wears a red sweater. It can be a dead animal, like the gorilla Harambe (R.I.P.). It can be a catchphrase, like “first of all …” or “eyebrows on fleek.” It can be a song, like “Shooting Stars” or “We Are Number One.” And, most abstractly of all, it can be a game: an image or an arrangement of words that compels meme creators to fill in the blanks with their own humor.
Memes are typically jokes, but they’re not just jokes. They’re the building blocks of a grassroots, democratic, 21st-century medium, one that corporations are still struggling to control and capitalize on. Memes aren’t dictated from the top down. They’re reblogged and retweeted into existence by the masses.
What is a meme? And where do they come from?
Memes are one of the most democratic forms of media. The barrier to entry is low. Having Photoshop or the ability to make a video could help, but anyone with a Twitter account and a dream can strike meme gold. Simultaneously, the competition is fierce. Unlike Dawkins’ conception of a meme, which seems to spread from one person to the next like a contagion, people share internet memes very intentionally. Memes might not cost money to make or view or retweet, but people choose to promote jokes that will impress others and help accrue social capital. Which is to say, they (mostly) spread jokes that are good.
But for a good joke to become a popular meme, it needs a platform. Some communities online have built reputations as the most reliable incubators of new memes. Although this isn’t a complete list, you can’t have an honest discussion of where memes come from without bringing these places up:
The most dynamic source of memes in 2017 is “Black Twitter,” the popular term for the cultural exchange and conversation among African-Americans on Twitter. (Considering how widely adopted Twitter is by Black people in the U.S., and how Black Twitter accounts for an overwhelming percentage of the original, funny, relatable content on the site, you may as well just call it “Twitter.”)
Black culture, broadcast via Twitter, has given us some of the most memorable memes of recent years. See, for example, meme stars Roll Safe and Big Shaq. Both were original characters created by U.K. comedians, and they became famous in America thanks to the power of Black Twitter. Popular joke formations like “First of all …” and familiar tropes like Crying Michael Jordan and cartoon aardvark Arthur’s clenched fist also started with Black Twitter.
News sites that cover Black culture, including Bossip and Complex, help accelerate the process of spreading Black Twitter humor to other social networks. So do the many, many Twitter accounts that aggregate jokes without credit. A Twitter account called Kale Salad is entirely dedicated to retweeting the original versions of the most popular tweets.
If it’s funny or cool, chances are it started on Black Twitter.
Other Twitter subcultures of note: “Weird Twitter,” a loose band of surrealist comedy tweeters that emerged from the long-running Something Awful forums. People typically associate it with the account “Dril,” whose best tweets have become iconic and inspired many parodies. “Left Twitter,” which has sprung up around the Democratic Socialists of America and the leftist podcast Chapo Trap House, intersects with Weird Twitter but produces valuable memes of its own.
4chan is a chaotic messageboard site where anonymous posters spew some of the most hateful garbage you’ve ever read, but it’s also an important petri dish for memes. Before the advent of “social media,” 4chan’s notorious /b/ board was creating things like LOLcats, Rickrolling, and Pedobear. These tropes were just “inside jokes” at the time, but now we call them memes.
And, according to a 2016 study of entries on the meme research website Know Your Meme, 4chan is responsible for 12 percent of all memes. You can debate the actual numbers, but 4chan’s influence is undeniable.
Since 2016, /b/ has been replaced as the most talked-about 4chan board by /pol/, the “politically incorrect”—read “white supremacist”—board that supported Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. It’s a haven of racist ideas, and the memes it produced during the election weren’t as innocent as the cat memes of yore. Along with Reddit’s notorious Trump forum, r/the_donald, which some have described as “an outpost of /pol/,” they transformed everyman cartoon character Pepe the Frog into a Nazi icon. /pol/’s memers then decided they worshipped the Egyptian frog god Kek, and waged “The Great Meme War of 2016” against left-wing Bernie Sanders memers. (For more on the complicated topic of The Great Meme War, you can read this in-depth Politico post.)
Thanks to /pol/, 4chan is still relevant, and its memes are getting as much mainstream news coverage as they ever have, but the site’s anarchic hacker ethos has been replaced with white nationalism and Trump-worship.
Reddit was initially seen by meme aficionados as a mainstream site that became popular by repackaging content from 4chan. It started out obsessed with dead meme forms like Advice Animals and Rage Comics, but more than a decade into its existence, it’s become a lot more than that. If you’re looking for original content on the “front page of the internet,” you’ll have to go beyond its most popular, most boring forums (like r/funny) and start digging into the real crucibles of memes. Two major subreddits stand out: r/dankmemes and r/me_irl.
Dankmemes is the debauched, controversial home of “edgy” memes, often dealing with topics like suicide, school shootings, and incest. Although those topics lack mainstream Facebook appeal, dank memes posters have a knack for spotting or creating new meme formats that can be easily adapted to any subject. And it’s a big enough subreddit—with more than 300,000 subscribers as of December 2017—that its best work tends to spread throughout Reddit and eventually escape into the mainstream.
Me_irl is more of a general meme subreddit, couched in the conceit that posters are describing themselves with the memes they post. It’s “me, in real life.” This leads to self-deprecating and depressing content at times, but me_irl has also turned into the heart of memes on Reddit. In fact, it’s so crucial that one weak period for me_irl in 2016 was described as “The Great Meme Drought” and the later return to form was hailed as a “Meme Renaissance.” Me_irl is responsible for some of the most common meme tropes on Reddit, like Bionicles and the annual “skeleton war.” It’s also responsible for keeping that It Is Wednesday, My Dudes frog in weekly rotation.
A third subreddit to watch, although it doesn’t produce original content, is r/memeeconomy, where posters keep tabs on which memes are hot and which are losing steam. A quick peek at r/memeeconomy will give you a rundown of what’s hot on the meme subreddits that matter. It’s also the home of the only monthly magazine entirely dedicated to memes, Meme Insider.
Tumblr is its own animal when it comes to memes. The site trends young and liberal compared to most other meme sources, and it’s also deeply into pop-culture fandoms. Doctor Who, anime, video games, young adult literature, My Little Pony—there are Tumblr posters who are obsessed with all of this stuff, which can make a lot of Tumblr memes somewhat esoteric and hard for outsiders to understand.
Because of Tumblr’s comment system, which involves reblogging posts to one’s own Tumblr to keep the conversation going, it can sometimes feel like a chat, but without Twitter’s character limits or Reddit’s focus on snappy jokes that get upvotes. That makes Tumblr a fantastic place for text-based memes and catchphrases, like “I am forcibly removed from the premises” or “Do you take constructive criticism?”
The greatest Tumblr content is completely off-the-wall, from teens posting history-based memes to a monster from an ’80s milk carton to people getting buried under piles of grain for some reason. Not every Tumblr meme will play on other platforms, but Tumblr speaks its own language and it’s very funny. Unfortunately, it also lacks a real search function, so finding the good stuff is a matter of following a lot of people or relying on secondary sources like the excellent Meme Documentation.
YouTube in 2017 is a content cesspit filled with gamers, the far right, and far-right gamers. In a sense, it produces memes in the same way TV produces memes: by providing the raw material. Indie video creators like Ethan Klein (h3h3productions), iDubbbz, and Filthy Frank have all been turned into successful memes on Reddit. Meanwhile, superstar YouTubers like Jake Paul and PewDiePie are mocked and memed in the same way any Hollywood or music industry celebrity would be. They just happen to be on YouTube.
YouTube’s other important function in the meme world is simply as the default place to upload video-based memes. Although it doesn’t necessarily produce more original content than other sites, it also doesn’t have much competition in the video sphere. That’s why, according to that 2016 study of where memes come from, YouTube accounted for more memes than any other site: 13 percent.
Successful meme YouTubers like grandayy get millions of views by remixing songs that are important in the meme world, including “We Are Number One” from the kids’ show LazyTown, Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” and Darude’s “Sandstorm.”
YouTube is also where specific TV clips from meme-friendly shows like Spongebob Squarepants and Jimmy Neutron get remixed and distorted into oblivion, creating catchphrases that travel to other social networks.
And OC (original content) YouTube memes like “boneless pizza” don’t just repurpose existing intellectual property, they introduce new characters and jokes to the zeitgeist. Then those, in turn, are spread and recombined to form even more content. Memes are a virtuous cycle—or a vicious one, depending on how toxic the content is.
Facebook and Instagram meme pages
Facebook and Instagram are both home to many dedicated meme pages with huge followings. Many of them—”The Fat Jew,” for example—simply repost content from other accounts. When a meme arrives on one of these derivative pages, with six- or seven-digit followings, it has officially become mainstream and will probably be declared “dead” by memers in spaces that offer more original content.
There are exceptions—pages in the Facebook and Instagram ecosystem that produce their own content—but they’re few and far between. Special Meme Fresh, the Facebook page that popularized the Meme Man character—a generic 3D model of a head—is one important example. Leftist Facebook—sometimes called “Leftbook”—is another. Perhaps you’ve heard of Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash?
Facebook is also the home of group Messenger chats and university-specific meme pages, places where memes spread and get huge outside of the public eye. It’s similar to what web nerds used to call “dark social,” where a link would spread through email and chat in a way that analytics software couldn’t effectively track. Just like not everyone who watched The Simpsons in the ’90s would quote it in conversation, not everyone who knows about memes shares them on public-facing social media.
Generally, though, Facebook is not where memes live. It’s where they go to die.
How do memes grow—and die?
Once a meme takes root in one of the communities described above, it starts to spread and receive coverage from secondary sources. Meme-centric media like the very thorough Know Your Meme and the controversial YouTube channel Behind the Meme can lend validity to a meme and put it in front of a mainstream audience, but doing so sends the meme down the road to an early grave. BuzzFeed, as the most-trafficked website that pays real attention to memes, often gets blamed for ruining the fun.
Getting news coverage robs memes of their subcultural capital, makes them uncool, and drives creators to stop investing time in them and move on to the next thing. The Daily Dot’s meme coverage is just as complicit in this process as anyone. Yes, we kill memes. No, we don’t care. It’s the circle of life, and it moves us all.
The route a meme generally travels from birth to death looks like… this, roughly. We just learned that 4chan isn’t the only place memes come from, but this crude Human Centipede is still mostly accurate:
Once it starts to show up on derivative meme sites like 9gag and iFunny.co—Reddit considers both of these sites to be content-stealing laughingstocks with nothing original to share—the meme is on the road to death.
The next step is news coverage: the larger the news outlet, the faster the meme dies. BuzzFeed, major news networks, and Ellen are probably the surest, swiftist meme-killers in the ecosystem. Just ask Damn, Daniel.
Once a meme has become property of the mainstream, it’ll be all over Facebook and Instagram and only “normies” and parents will find it funny. Then the only thing left is for the meme to go corporate. It’s now so popular that executives have heard of it, and the social media managers for major brands are able to get their bosses to sign off on using it for Twitter and Facebook. It might even be referenced on a popular TV show like The Big Bang Theory.
R.I.P., that meme. It’s like Ashton Kutcher: widely recognized but will never be cool again. (Unless it’s ironically cool, but the rare second lives of memes are another story altogether.)
The Meme Economy
The social value of a meme, whether it comes from being cool, transgressive, funny or clever, is measured by the so-called “meme economy.” It’s just like the stock market, but dumber! Participants treat memes as commodities and attempt to track their rise and fall. And largely, it’s a game: Internet posters enjoy playing at being “traders,” trying to spot the next good meme or declare an old trend dead. They take something seemingly trivial, like pictures of Pepe the Frog, and apply the language of capitalism to treat them like they have serious value.
In the meme economy, “buying” means creating and sharing more of a meme or format. “Selling” means posting your entire stock of that meme as soon as possible, and not investing any further effort or attention in it.
For a great beginner’s’ overview of the meme economy, watch this video by redditor WoollyOneOfficial:
A stock market for memes is a funny concept, but it gets at a fundamental truth about memes: They don’t last. The fun of memes is in making a new discovery, playing with it until its creative potential is completely exhausted, and then moving on to the next thing. Thus, memes are more valuable before they become hugely popular. Finding something before it’s cool offers a sense of hipster exclusivity, but it also means you get to enjoy the joke before it overwhelms your Facebook wall and Twitter feed. The faster a meme ramps up, the sooner it fades away. (See the cautionary tale of Damn, Daniel for a great example of this.)
So, what the meme economy really captures is a meme’s parabolic life cycle, as it’s discovered, becomes huge, and then virtually disappears. Nearly every meme follows the same pattern. Some take just a few hours, others a few months.
What are the types of memes?
Probably the dominant meme category of 2017, the exploitable is a fill-in-the-blank meme. It’s Donald Trump holding up a blank executive order. It’s a webcomic with some of the dialogue erased. It’s the rapper Drake pushing away one empty box and smiling at another.
These memes always use the same image, but meme creators fill in the blanks with their own punchlines. They’re so popular because the effort to participate is very low. All you need is an image editor and a funny idea.
There are two ways to succeed with exploitables: One is to write an especially good punchline, and the other is to discover a good new exploitable template and offer it to the community. If it catches on, you’ve started your own meme.
Perhaps the most notable exploitable image of 2017 was the “galaxy brain,” where people posted progressively worse ideas next to photos of progressively more active brains. It’s an ironic meme where the “smartest” thing on the chart is actually the worst.
The “TFW” (or “When”) meme
This is the most aggressively relatable meme style you’re likely to encounter. It’s a two-part formula: a caption that describes a scenario and an image that depicts that scenario or represents how you might feel when that scenario occurs. The caption will nearly always include “When …” or “TFW” for “that feel when…”
tfw pornhub is more wholesome about mental health than twitter pic.twitter.com/7DiYQvdAZ6
— nut-roast malone (@kxthleen) October 11, 2017
When you are a minority and see someone say the first time they were ashamed of America was in 2017 pic.twitter.com/B802uT8kXu
— Matthew A. Cherry (@MatthewACherry) January 30, 2017
With their short captions, these memes are perfectly suited for Twitter. In fact, even when they start on other sites, they usually use the Twitter font for captions. Black Twitter makes particularly good use of TFW and reaction GIFs in general and may have started the trend in the first place.
It’s extremely difficult to introduce a new character to the meme canon, but when it works, it has perhaps the highest ceiling of any meme type. Harambe, the gorilla who was killed in 2016 after a boy fell into his zoo enclosure, became a meme and was virtually worshipped as a god. Pepe the Frog is now so iconic that he’s like a fucked-up internet Mickey Mouse—he even played a role in a presidential election. And who could forget unicycling frog Dat Boi? O shit, waddup?!
A meme character could be a cartoon, like Spongebob, Shrek, or the Minions. It could be a celebrity—Drake comes immediately to mind—or it could be a normal-ish person who accidentally found themselves in the limelight. This last proposition can be extremely problematic.
In the early 2010s, the internet was infatuated with bystanders on the local news, exploiting these colorful—mostly poor, mostly Black—individuals by putting them on T-shirts and in AutoTuned remixes. Thankfully, that awkward phase in meme history has passed, but ordinary people still get turned into memes all the time. And when they do, the attention usually doesn’t flatter them.
Ken Bone, the mustachioed, sweater-sporting guy who asked a question at a 2016 presidential debate, was beloved by all until someone uncovered his history of odious Reddit posts. “Chewbacca Mom,” who recorded herself having fun in a Star Wars mask, tried to take her fame too far and faced a backlash. Vocal feminists have been mocked as “Social Justice Warriors” and turned into cruel memes. Being a meme, for most people, is not a reward.
There’s even a term for what happens when these temporary heroes inevitably expose their human flaws: They become a “milkshake duck.”
It’s not all bad, though. This year, a handful of meme characters have found genuine success. “Salt Bae,” a handsome Turkish chef, opened new restaurants on the strength of his online fame. Roll Safe and Roadman Shaq, both characters created by Black, British comedians, catapulted their creators’ careers to new heights.
Some memes don’t need images at all. They’re entirely text-based.
A text meme can be a catchphrase that people repeat verbatim, carrying on the joke by applying it to new scenarios or current events. For example, “Send nudes,” a half-joking request for nude photos, has been deployed in hundreds of different contexts since it became popular. “Dicks out for Harambe” is another example of some garbage that people enjoyed copying and pasting in 2016.
In fact, there’s an entire genre of meme called Copypasta, referring to long, intentionally annoying blocks of text that are meant to be copied and pasted. It could be a rambling threat from a “Navy Seal,” or it could be the entire text of Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie. It could be the famous tweet known as “the wife email.” Either way, the humor is in the length and the repetition.
Perhaps the most common form of text meme is the snowclone, a linguistic term for stock phrases where one or two words can be swapped out at will, like “X is the new Y.”
Notable snowclones in the meme world include Tumblr’s “Some People Use??? X to Cope???” and “I am forcibly removed from the premises,” as well as “X machine broke” and “Me, an intellectual.” Tumblr is very good at snowclones.
There is one category of meme that hews so closely to Dawkins’ original, narrow definition of a meme that it’s not clear it fits our internet definition at all: the pure idea or concept.
These don’t follow our meme rule of taking a definite form that allows others to participate. They’re tropes that spread like viruses, sure, but they’re not visual or language games like the other memes we’ve looked at.
Certainly, images of the Babadook with a rainbow flag, or acrostics that refer to Cruz as the Zodiac, or headlines that scream “Millennials are killing X” give these memes form, but there’s no agreed-upon template for expressing these ideas.
To draw a parallel to a more established medium: There are plenty of bad TV shows based on the concept “a dumb but well-meaning husband has somehow married above his station,” but there’s not a TV show called, “a dumb but well-meaning husband has somehow married above his station.”
There are memes about Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russian government, but Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russian government is not, itself, a meme.
That’s one reason why, when the alt-right and Gamergate wanted to shout about “cucks” and “cultural Marxism” and other white supremacist buzzwords, they co-opted Pepe the Frog as a mascot. The use of an established, internet-native character gave their ideas, such as they were, additional memetic force.
Where do memes go from here?
Like any medium, memes can be dangerous: They’re just as effective at spreading conspiracy theories as they are at spreading jokes. As the 2016 election showed, memes are getting more politicized as they get more popular. If they’re allowed to become the sole province of alt-right provocateurs and edgy shitlords, their mainstream appeal will remain limited.
That could happen, of course, but it won’t last.
Consider comics: a rich medium capable of conveying all manner of stories, whether they’re about punching bad guys or living with depression. It took decades for comics to shake the stigma that they were just for white, male nerds, but now superhero movies are mainstream and indie comics are taken seriously as literature.
Internet memes, on the other hand, are still in their infancy. The fight over who “owns” them now could determine the path the medium takes for a long time to come. Will it be Facebook parents? Tumblr teens? The “dank” meme economy nerds on Reddit? Or disaffected young 4channers driven by racial and sexual animus? Will it be… corporations?
We may go through phases when memes are associated with certain groups and politics. For example, the right is working particularly hard to control the meme space in 2017, and it remains to be seen whether the left will cede it to them. But the truth is that memes are so diverse in form and content, and so full of creative possibilities, that anyone can enjoy them. They’re free and plentiful to consume, and they’re trivial to create and share.
If “the medium is the message,” as Marshall McLuhan famously suggested, the implicit message of memes is that anyone can be a creator, and any idea can take hold on social media if it’s packaged and promoted properly. But because the line between consumer and creator is blurrier than in any type of media we’re used to, and because we like memes to feel like inside jokes, the debate over “ownership” is fierce and unsettled.
It’s not just a matter of intellectual property and who can profit—although that’s an interesting question—it’s about identity. In the same way that geeks and hipsters chafe when their favorite franchises or bands go mainstream, and cling to their self-conception as “real fans,” the people who drive meme culture today will have to come to terms with the medium’s growing audience.
In another five or 10 years, it will feel as absurd to say “memes are for teenage virgin white nationalists” as it does to say “rock music is for hippies” or “comics are for nerds” now.
The content will change with the times, and corporations may find a way to profit, but memes aren’t going away. We may as well get used to them.