A Scientific Breakdown of Memes - Social Media Explorer
A Scientific Breakdown of Memes
A Scientific Breakdown of Memes

If you’re like me, you probably get a good laugh out of Internet memes too many times a day. It’s clear that memes are a major part of our digital culture, but is there anything more to them than just entertainment? A study by communications agency We Are Flint demonstrates that there’s actually a science behind how memes work. Here are some of the highlights of the research:

So What Exactly Is A Meme?

You might think that “meme” is just another nonsensical word spawned by the Internet. It turns out that the word has an academic history. The term “meme” was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976. Dawkins defined a meme as “a package that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation”. The present-day definition of “meme” is pretty similar, but it has a digital twist. We Are Flint describes the “Internet meme” as a cultural symbol or social idea that is virtually transmitted by Internet users via social media.

Meme Classification and Architecture

While memes often seem like random Internet accidents, most of them fall into one of these four categories:

1. Image (macro) memes

A macro meme has a familiar image/GIF with a text caption (usually in Impact font) at both the top and the bottom. The bottom text usually functions as the meme’s punch line. Popular examples include the “One Does Not Simply” and “Most Interesting Man in the World” memes.

2. Photo memes

A photo meme consists of a photo (obviously) with a recognizable visual signifier like a filter, overlaid symbol, or action. Examples include photos featuring the “dabbing” gesture or the rainbow filter in support of Gay Pride.

3. Video memes

Video memes portray Internet users carrying out their own versions of a recognizable action, often with popular songs as a soundtrack. Some notable video memes are the Mannequin Challenge and the Harlem Shake.

4. Word memes

Word memes are popular terms or phrases that are organized with hashtags across the Internet. These hashtags can function as punchlines, markers of social issues, and trackers of other memes. Word meme examples include #YouKnowYoureBritishWhen, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MannequinChallenge.

How Do Memes Spread?

Memes are often born in peripheral corners of the Internet on sites like 4chan and 9gag. Thanks to the magic of social media sharing, these memes can gain popularity on bigger platforms like Facebook. But what drives Internet users to share memes with others? According to We Are Flint’s research, people are more likely to share a meme if it:

a) Gives them social currency (i.e. make them look cooler, smarter, trendy, etc.)

b) Evokes emotion (especially if it’s a positive one)

c) Is useful (in that it provides information on a trending issue or connects to a marketing promotion)

d) Utilizes storytelling (everyone likes a good story!)

Why Should We Understand Memes?

Memes play a significant role in today’s Internet landscape, as they have evolved into a form of communication. Memes are used not only by the average social media user, but also by brands, third-sector organizations, and political movements. By understanding the mechanism behind memes, anyone (from activists to marketers) can use them to effectively share their ideas with billions of other Internet users.

About the Author

Maha Chaudhry
Maha Chaudhry works at Renegade LLC, a social-inspired marketing agency. She recently graduated from Princeton University, where she studied psychology and health policy. Her interests include fashion and beauty in digital media.

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