Internet Memes: An Online Sensation

By: Julie Swets

In the 1970s evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” after the Greek “minema,” meaning “something to be imitated.” In its more general explanation, a meme is a bit of information that is transferred among people in a culture. The increasing popularity and interconnectedness of social media and the internet in general have fueled the proliferation of internet memes, which are best described as a photo, gif, video, or symbol that relates to many people, usually through exaggerated or sarcastic humor. The abilities to be imitated and to be shared are the hallmarks of internet memes– at least the successful ones.


Some of the most popular internet memes from the last ten years are the Overly Attached Girlfriend, a picture of a hyperexcited girl usually coupled with some creepy clingy-girlfriend quote, and the Socially Awkward Penguin, an animation of a helpless penguin, captioned by some relatable embarrassing social encounter, and the planking video phenomenon, when people videoed themselves in the plank position in various unexpected locations.


Just this year, the new meme Saltbae has covered the internet. A butcher named Nusret Gökçe posted a video of himself seasoning his streak with his arm bent in a strange, dinosaur-like manner, and when a screenshot of this motion surfaced online, it circulated with the attached significance of doing something with flair or showiness.


These memes, although in themselves appear fairly useless as an indicator of culture, actually aptly represent represents the impact of internet memes on modern society. Importantly, due to the process of creating and sharing them, memes are a medium of participatory culture. Some facets of participatory culture include building off others’ ideas to create a new product, combining techniques and forms of media, utilizing tools and helpers that assist creation of new products, and engaging in creative inspiration. We can see how all of these skills are relevant in the creation and sharing of internet memes.  


Businesses often capitalize on the popularity of internet memes and accumulate nearly free marketing, usually by creating their own form of a meme to gain attention (see: Virgin Mobile’s Success Kid meme; Jimmy John’s employee group dab).


Additionally, internet memes are often used to contribute to political culture. Most salient in this category is Pepe the Frog, a sly-looking cartoon frog who was originally part of a kids’ comic strip decades ago. Somewhere throughout the course of the 2016 presidential election, however, Pepe became twisted to represent all things hate: from anti-Semitism to white supremacism to terrorism. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) identified Pepe the Frog as an official hate symbol in September 2016.


Like many digital tendencies nowadays, it has been tough to determine exactly when or how poor Pepe became to be known this way. “Once again, racists and haters have taken a popular Internet meme and twisted it for their own purposes of spreading bigotry and harassing users,” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO.


As we can see, internet memes are not always the statements of positivity and unity that we hope and know our world can demonstrate. But if you need to renew your hope in memes as a diffuser of simple pleasures, just search for an image of Chris Bosh as a velociraptor or shuffle back in time to the age of flash mob and Gangnam Style videos–or better yet, find one of scores of internet meme generators online and start a digital sensation yourself.