A meme is any idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads between people within a culture . In other words, a meme is a fad that carries cultural ideas, symbols, or practices and that spreads through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or any other imitable phenomena. Internet memes are a subcategory of general memes. Any concept, catchphrase, or byword that spreads rapidly between users online can be considered an internet meme . This content tends to spread through internet-based communication platforms such as emailing, blogs, forums, image boards (e.g. Tumblr, Reddit, 4chan), social networking (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Myspace), instant messaging, and video-hosting services (e.g. Youtube, Vimeo) . The sheer volume of users and speed of communication on the internet causes online memes to spread and evolve far more quickly than their offline counterparts, sometimes going in and out of popularity in only a matter of days.
Many different groups have taken advantage of the rapid growth and impact of internet memes to advance their agendas. Marketers and advertisers have applied an advertising technique called viral marketing to create buzz around their products like in the Lay's "Do Us a Flavor" challenge or in Poo-Pourri's "Girls Don't Poop" campaign . Even politicians are using the internet in their voter outreach efforts. In the 2016 presidential race, Hillary Clinton tried to connect with younger voters by appearing on popular programs such as Ellen and Between Two Ferns, to both partake in existing meme culture and to try and become a meme herself . Small online businesses, such as Attentive , try to "memeify" their services so they can be spread more easily and perhaps gain attention in popular spaces such as Reddit's front page .
The efforts of these groups seems to be working. Lay's, Poo-Pourri, and Hillary collectively have over 70 million view on Youtube, while Attentive gained over 200,000 unique users to their site after reaching the front page of Reddit. Memes are far-reaching and inexpensive, and can reasonably be expected to be used more extensively by these groups in the future.
The term “memetics” was coined “by analogy with genetics” in 1976 by biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins contends that memes, not unlike genes, evolve via natural selection and are a means of cultural information transfer. More entertaining, relatable memes tend to survive and replicate, while the weaker memes eventually die out.
An example of memes undergoing natural selection is seen through the 2016 election. During the election, social media saw a proliferation of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Memes. Before the general election, however, Bernie Sanders memes were very popular as well. As the main candidates were chosen, Bernie Sanders memes died out whereas Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump memes survived.
The concept of memes existed long before the coinage of the term in 1976. "Kilroy was here", Alfred E. Neuman, and "I Want YOU for the U.S. Army" are all examples of memes that came to fame before Dawkins and the internet.
"Kilroy was here" was a piece of graffito that gained popularity during World War II . It was often associated with American G.I.'s since they were known to have drawn the image on tanks, planes, and in bathrooms all over the world . The origins of the image are not known for certain, but it is thought to be an amalgam of two other memes that existed at the time: Mr. Chad and the graffiti of James J. Kilroy .
Alfred E. Neuman is a character known today as the mascot for MAD magazine, but his origins date back to the 19th century . The image descends from stereotypical caricatures of Irish immigrants who were depicted as ape-faced “Paddys” and “Bridgets” in American and English magazines, hence Alfred's appearance (big ears and lop-sided eyes with a goofy smile) . Although today, we would consider the image offensive, the creators of the magazine simply slapped a different name on an already successful stereotype to make a profit.
I Want YOU for the U.S. Army is probably the most recognizable poster in the world and is often associated with American wartime patriotism. Political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, first popularized the character of Uncle Sam. He is credited with giving Sam the white beard and stars-and-stripes get-up he is known for today . However, artist James Montgomery Flagg is the creator of the famous poster. The piece made its first public debut in July 1916 where it appeared on the cover of Leslie's Weekly with the title, "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" . The image's popularity lead to it becoming a recruitment poster for World War I.
As time moved forward, memes continued to be created and the methods in which they were spread began to evolve. Designers and graffiti artists like, Shepard Fairey and Banksy, took to the streets with stickers and spray paint to make art that provoked viewers to contemplate and search for meaning in them. Online discussion sites such as, 4chan and Reddit, have produced content, like Lolcats and "The Narwhal Bacons at Midnight" , that offer no social commentary and are for purely comedic purposes. The main difference between memes of the past and present is not in their content (memes of the past could be equally as silly as some memes seen today), but in the tools used to spread them between people within a culture.
Popular memes survive because they reflect an idea, practice or thought process of which people can relate to. The internet allows people to assemble into different online networks, and internet memes spread between and throughout these groups. Many memes contain references to pop culture and are effective if these references are popular amongst internet users. For example, a popular internet meme involves an image from a Dos Equis beer marketing campaign of “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” The phrase popularized by this campaign, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis,” has been used in conjunction with the image as a template for thousands of memes. Usually one of the top options offered on sites devoted to the creation of memes, its popularity can be attributed to its reference to the Dos Equis commercial. The meme would not have the full effect if seen by someone unfamiliar with the commercial. In this sense, the meme appeals to a large social group on the internet: those familiar with the commercial.
Memes also exist that cater to more specific social groups, such as college students, video game advocates, sports fans, music fans, and other popular online communities. These communities contain inside jokes that are easily spread through memes. In psychology, an ingroup is a social group in which a person psychologically identifies as being a member, while an outgroup is a social group in which an individual does not identify. Memes containing references to a viewer’s ingroup(s) will be more effective than if referencing something unfamiliar to the viewer (ie. in their outgroup). The source of the meme in relation to a viewer’s ingroup(s) is also significant. People are more likely to spread internet memes that make people angry if the source of the video is from an “outgroup member”. If a meme is shared by someone who is perceived to be an ingroup member, it is more likely to gather the viewer's attention.
Sharing Self-Created Content
Because of the simplicity of internet memes, specifically those image-based, several websites exist that allow users to create their own memes . The prevalence of these websites show that humans derive significant satisfaction from sharing self-created content. It has even been suggested that humans “may get a neurochemical reward from sharing information, and a significantly bigger reward from disclosing their own thoughts and feelings than from someone else’s” . People create memes and share them to gain status and obtain social feedback. Both of these activate the brain’s reward system, a system known to be triggered by “primary rewards (food and sex) and secondary rewards (money)." This reward as a result of self-disclosure is similar to that of a slot machine, in the sense that the human brain anticipates a possible reward.
Manifest and Latent Functions
The manifest function of internet memes has evolved over time. When internet memes first became popular, their manifest function was purely for entertainment purposes; they were used to make people laugh, spread ideas, and pass time. In the present, internet memes are still used for entertainment but they have evolved to also serve different purposes, such as offer sociopolitical commentary and serve as advertisements. Internet memes are so popular because their content evokes a strong emotional response, be it positive or negative. This process is known as emotional contagion: "a process through which emotions spread like a disease and are therefore considered contagious". For example, when people watch video clips they may be able to empathize with the characters in the video, and by sharing it with others, they are anticipating that the recipient will also feel the same emotional response. Internet memes that evoke the strongest emotional response, and are hence the most entertaining, tend to survive longer than those that don't evoke such a strong response.
A latent function of a behavior is not explicitly stated, recognized, or intended by the people involved. In this sense, internet memes are often biased socio-political commentaries that offer insight into social groups' views but are rarely fact-checked. One latent function of these memes is the spread of misinformed political biases. This can be an issue because when people begin to believe the information seen in memes without fact-checking, misinformation spreads through society.
Humor and Relatability
Many memes that populate Facebook and other social media newsfeeds are purely for entertainment or relatability purposes.
Condescending Wonka is an image featuring a screen capture of actor Gene Wilder in the 1971 musical Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. As its name suggests, the captions can be characterized as patronizing and sarcastic. This meme is mainly for entertainment and relatability purposes.
Evil Kermit is a captioned image series featuring a screenshot of the Muppet character Kermit the Frog talking with his nemesis Constantine dressed as a Sith Lord from Star Wars, who instructs him to perform various indulgent, lazy, selfish and unethical acts. This image has been extrapolated to common everyday scenarios where people are consciously deciding between good and evil.
Successful Black Man is an image featuring a photo of a black man dressed in business attire superimposed in front of a brown and beige color wheel background. The jokes typically employ a bait-and-switch format with the top caption appearing to set-up a stereotype about African Americans followed by a bottom caption rendering the phrase innocuous.
Memes used to engage people politically, especially younger users of Facebook and other social media outlets. Websites such as electmeme.com prompt users to vote for their favorite politically charged images. Some issues that are seen here is the lack of fact checking and clear party bias.
Memes are also often used to further political agendas, generating a wide range of responses. In 2007, a video of Amber Lee Ettinger singing an original song titled "Crush on Obama" in a bikini was posted. The video was extremely popular, and currently has 26 million views on Youtube. Ettinger continued to star in other BarelyPolitical videos. Creators were using these videos to help promote the election, and although they did not believe a particular video itself made a significant difference, they brought additional attention to Obama's campaign. Conversely, Hillary Clinton's "Dab" on The Ellen Show prompted internet users to react and create parody videos of her, including the Meme Queen video. This satirical campaign video shows her embracing various pop culture and internet meme trends as an effort to reach younger voters.
There are many other Internet memes and entire webpages dedicated to showcasing memes that span the entire political ideological spectrum. Internet memes can be found that both support and oppose almost any topic.
Internet memes are one of the most important tools in online marketing today. Because of their inexpensiveness and trendiness, many companies have taken advantage of popular memes to advertise their own products. For example, Abercrombie and Fitch made one of the most successful ads of 2012 when they created a parody of the popular song, Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen.
Wonderful Pistachios is also known for its ad campaigns featuring celebrities and popular internet memes, such as Gangnam Style, Honey Badger, and Keyboard Cat. Vice President of Marketing Marc Seguin justifies this tactic: "The Super Bowl is the most widely watched sporting event of the year, ‘Gangnam Style’ is the most-watched YouTube video, and Wonderful Pistachios is the top-selling snack nut item on the market. It’s a powerhouse combination."
However, not all hijacking of memes is successful. Microsoft received a lot of criticism on the Internet when they used the Double Rainbow meme. The ad was perceived to be overtly corporate and did not capture the original spirit of the video.
While most successful advertisements evolved from existing Internet memes, memes can also evolve from advertisements themselves, like the Old Spice commercial. While new versions of memes will quickly expire in the case of commercialized memes, different versions of the Old Spice meme have evolved and continued spreading the product's brand name and popularity. The latter type of advertisement tends to be more successful due to the nature of how Internet memes are created, spread, and killed.
Furthering One's Self-Interest
We see in society how technology shifts power among different social groups. Those who embrace and understand new technology are able to use it to advance the ball in their direction, while those who don't are struggling to keep up. Internet memes are just another piece of technology, a tool, that different social groups have access to. Today, Internet memes are often used to spread ideas that further one's self-interest or agenda.
The First Meme President
The Mercury News named Barack Obama "The First Meme President." Shepard Fairey designed the 2008 "Hope" poster, which "quickly became one of the most popular graphics in American political history ." Memes that oppose President Obama also proliferated during his campaign and presidency. The juxtaposing memes during Obama's presidency allowed opposing groups to express their views and further their own self-interests and party views by populating social media newsfeeds.
YouTube and the Harlem Shake
YouTube provides an easy-to-use medium for videos to spread freely. YouTube gives 55% of the ad revenue to the uploader of the video, which usually amounts to $2 for every 1000 views. Many people make a living by creating video memes on YouTube and even more create memes just to generate a short-term profit. The Harlem Shake is one example of this.
The Harlem Shake was started by a sketch comedy group in Australia on February 2nd, 2013. In a week, the video reached 4000 views per day; there were 12,000 different versions and a total of 44 million views aggregated across the different versions. Within a month, this total hit 1 billion. The video was popular because of the anticipation of the breakout moment and the short length, making it very accessible.  The creators used this meme not only to generate revenue but also to promote their comedy group. Popular YouTube channels have compiled the "best" Harlem Shake videos, based on their opinion. This allows different groups who joined in on the meme with their own version to promote themselves as well.
The Karma System
The creation of the karma system is an example of how internet users can use memes to further themselves in society. Certain websites, such as Reddit, implement a karma system where users have a number that represents their overall worthiness. Good actions such as submitting interesting content or making valuable comments increases your karma, while bad actions such as submitting spam or trolling decreases your karma.  Recently, the term karma whoring was created to label someone who seeks to raise his social standing within an online community by pandering stereotypical prejudices and trends that are widely accepted by its members. Karma whores will often repost popular content or link to websites with an overwhelmingly popular reception. 
Internet memes are important because they are so ubiquitous. They are used for their latent function in advertising and furthering self interest, and they spread easily due to their manifest function in entertaining and informing. Most importantly, they give us insight into human nature. Internet memes demonstrate mankind's desire for a connected society.
- "The Most Famous Poster". American Treasures of the Library of Congress. Archived from the original on 2016-07-02. https://web.archive.org/web/20160702034936/https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm015.html.