Cracking the Code on Memes

Have you seen that new meme?

By Alison Copeland

 President Meme

President Meme

Memes! They can make you laugh, dance, waste inordinate amounts of time, and rack up millions of views if you’re lucky. But seriously, who can resist their hyper-magnetic charm? From Cee-Lo’s bold 2017 Grammy ensemble, where the singer appeared like the golden foil of a Ferrero Rocher to President Trump’s executive orders hilariously turned into exploitable meme templates, memes are here to stay!  Confused? Don’t be.

What in the World are Memes?

 Kermit's business

Kermit's business

Memes (rhymes with teams) are humorous pieces of content, often copied and spread at lightning speed by Internet users. First introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976, the word was used to describe a way for people to transmit social memories and cultural ideas to each other, before being hijacked by the internet to describe anything that goes viral.

You’ve most likely seen them pop up on your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feed in the form of a photo with a witty phrase (think: Judgmental Kermit), a video, GIF (aka moving image), song or even a viral dance challenge such as Juju on That Beat or Harlem Shake. Perhaps you liked them so much, you shared and tweaked some of the content to suit your own humorous needs via the online meme generator –

Where do Memes come from?

Memes can come from virtually anywhere! However, it’s how they get here what truly makes them unique. Remember the Dancing Baby meme also known as Baby Cha-Cha? That started life as a hallucination on the comedy-drama series Ally McBeal in the mid to late 90s, before becoming globally popular through email chains. It’s also often cited as one of the internet’s first memes.

What about Afro Ninja? This side-splitting audition outtake for a martial arts movie made the rounds via email (circa 2004) and shows a man with an afro attempting a backflip of epic fail proportions. The pre-YouTube video clip was so laughable it inspired a Family Guy parody and an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. 

Now fast forward to the Roll Safe meme that kicked up an internet storm in January 2017. The meme features Roll Safe, aka Reese Simpson, a fictional wannabe rapper and self-described “triple threat” from the BBC3 mockumentary series, #HoodDocumentary.

In the now infamous scene which aired last summer, Roll Safe is seen smiling smugly and tapping his temples, when asked by the filmmaker about his upcoming date (you can watch the full hilarity here at 1:10 -1:33 mins). However, it’s not until mid-November when a British Football joke account, Footy Humour, uses a still of Roll Safe in a tweet that the meme took off as a vehicle to offer advice you don’t need.

Where Can I Find Memes?

 Cee-Lo Gold

Cee-Lo Gold

These days, you don’t have to look too far. Memes are everywhere, constantly replicating and mutating on multi-media platforms. However, if you want to dig a little deeper and study your memes history and origin, then the Internet meme database Know Your Memes will be your best friend. Two of the biggest meme-producing sites (visited by 100 million people daily) and Tumblr TV allows you to stream currently trending GIFs on the topic or tag of your choice. Reddit and 4Chan will keep you apprised of memes that are just starting to trend, and there’s even a meme-generating empire called I Can Has Cheezburger for those who like their memes furry and four-legged.

Why Do Memes Go Viral?

 Why so grumpy?

Why so grumpy?

It turns out that nearly all successful memes have certain elements in common. 1. They’re simple. 2. They have mass appeal. 3. They’re based on current events and 4. They use humour, which stands to reason given today’s attention economy. 

Another factor that makes memes go viral is our cultural obsession with patronising anything deemed cool. Connecting with the in crowd through shared emotions such as happiness, excitement or nostalgia is what gives memes their magnetic charm. 

According to Keith Shubeck and Stephanie Huette, researchers from the University of Memphis, memes with shorter names are more likely to find internet fame, while emotive memes expressing positive or negative sentiments like nice or ugly improves recall. Interestingly, memes with swear words are least likely to be shared, and abstract words like proof are easily forgotten. 

If you want to create a meme epidemic, then animal memes and social media challenges are the way to go. Grumpy Cat, the nickname given to the cat with the vexed facial expression received the “single greatest internet achievement of the year” award in 2013 because its photo was shared so many times. 

In 2014, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (the one where you dump a bucket of ice and water over a person’s head to promote awareness of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) became one of the biggest viral sensations ever! More than 3 million people shared and mentioned #IceBucketChallenge videos in less than 3 weeks, and raised US$100 million for the ALS Association. 

Can you make Money from Memes?

 Hide yo kids

Hide yo kids

Remember Antoine Dodson and his “Hide Yo’ Kids, Hide Yo’ Wife” tirade to a news channel after a sex attack on his sister? That outburst turned into a viral YouTube video (the most watched video of 2010) and earned Dodson an estimated US$50,000. Even Grumpy Cat is estimated to be making anywhere from $2,200 to $18,900 from its YouTube channel alone.

So, now you know!

Like propaganda, memes are the fastest way to make people sit up and pay attention. All you need is an image of a funny cat and a crazy caption, and you’re good to go. As there’s no sign of them fizzling away, what’s next for this addictive internet phenomenon? Apparently, a joke meme economy called NASDANQ, but that’s a whole other story, and you can learn about that here!