The meme-ing of life: viral humor and why it spreads

If you’re reading this, you probably have internet access. If you have internet access, you’re probably familiar with memes. You’ve seen them, laughed at them, possibly been confused by them, and probably looked at them when you were supposed to be doing something else.

It’s become increasingly clear that memes have become a major part of communication in our digital culture. They’re definitely entertaining, but what’s the science behind how they spread? What makes a meme go viral?

What do you meme?

But first, what exactly is a “meme”? Despite their significance in the online community, the humble meme actually predates the internet. The term originated in 1976 from evolutionary biologist (and original meme lord) Richard Dawkins.

He defined memes as ‘packages’ that “convey the idea of a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation.” Much like how a gene is a package of genetic information that is transmitted between parents and their children. Modern internet memes are transmitted via social media, and can be anything from images, to videos, to simple phrases.

But where did they come from? Where did they go? Where did they come from…I’ll stop myself there. That little reference was a meme. Did you get it? Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t. If you did, you just experienced one of the reasons why memes go viral.

The ‘major keys’ to why memes spread

“They don’t want you to know the science behind memes. They don’t want you to go viral.” Source: Flickr

Communications researchers have identified a few key points on why people share memes. Social currency and emotions are two ‘major keys’.

Some memes can be like inside jokes. This element of social currency creates a positive emotional response. Sharing a meme can make you feel intelligent, funny or “in the know”. You feel good because you “get” it, and it can create a sense of connection with others who also “get” it.

The Office: great TV show and source of many screencap-based memes. Image source: Paige Druce, 2017.

Besides the positive emotional connection we get when sharing a meme, we also have emotional responses to the memes themselves. Happiness, nostalgia, shock, and sadness can all be evoked by a meme, just as they can be by any other form of communication. Perhaps not so surprisingly, research has shown positive emotions generally generate more shares than negative ones.

Memes can also be useful (and not just when you’re procrastinating writing that assignment). They can be used to communicate a range of information, from something as simple as a relatable situation or feeling, to philosophical content or social commentary on current events.

Memetics???? That’s a real word apparently

Look at that fancy word. What does it mean though?

I’m glad you asked. You know how I said memes are like genes? Well, memetics are like genetics. Old mate Dawkins loosely based elements of his meme theory on Darwin’s theory of evolution. His theory proposed that culture replicates itself in order to ensure continued survival, similar to human genes.

He reckons there are three main elements that memes need to have in order to successfully spread:

  1. Fidelity – it’s gotta be true.
  2. Fecundity – enough people have gotta see it.
  3. Longevity – here for a good time, not a long time (i.e. they don’t need to last forever, just long enough to spread to a decent amount of people).

Now, Dawkins made these points regarding old-timey, pre-internet memes. But he’s said that the two are very much connected and related.

So, where original memes used to spread and evolve via accurate copying and random change, internet memes are now deliberately influenced and changed by humans as they spread.

What are your favourite memes? Do you think they’re changing the way we communicate? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

13 Responses to “The meme-ing of life: viral humor and why it spreads”

  1. Tharaka Kaluarachchi says:

    The speed at which memes come and go, the ones that stick around and remain relevant, and the ones that disappear after a week – it is truly an amazing time to be alive. The speed and efficiency of communication today would have been utterly unbelievable even 15 years ago, and I wonder how far we will go, going forth into the future. Where will the memes take us tomorrow? I can’t wait.

  2. mwatchorn says:

    Does Dawkins outline what he considers to be evolution in a meme? Some memes e.g. One does not simply… have been around for over a decade and are still going strong. It seems like, as in actual evolution, the line between where one meme ends and another begins could be pretty fine.

  3. jordii says:

    ….. Cotton Eye Joe. haha.

    You’re a heading God. Really interesting. I had no idea there was science behind memes either.

  4. chatzis says:

    Good explanation. Memes have definitely helped build stronger friendships within my social groups. I find it’s a simple way to let someone know you’re thinking about them and that people are thinking of you

  5. lohj3 says:

    An interesting topic which is written superbly. =-)

  6. Tomas Haddad says:

    Memes have morphed into something else entirely nowadays compared to … say, 10 years ago. It used to be a single line or theme that’d you scream about on the internet or make videos of, and now it’s just captions on images. I wonder how it’ll be in the next decade … Good topic!

  7. awilson3 says:

    Thanks for explaining the origin of memes! I was discussing the topic very recently… how funny. Love to watch DJ Khaled on snapchat for a laugh every now and then, and I think most of the reason for that is because I know I ‘get’ it alongside others who also ‘get’ it.

  8. Nancy Rivers Tran says:

    Way too awesome!! This topic is so unexpected. Who would have thought that there is science behind memes? Nice topic!

  9. Ehlana Tompsett says:

    Memes are such a powerful means of communication in the modern age. Comedy has always served well to bring philosophy and ethics into an easier to discuss light, and in this way memes are the latest medium for expressing our ideas and connecting with others without fear of humiliation.

    But also the star wars memes are by far my favourite. The prequels would never have seen this kind of cultural resurgence without the power of memes.

  10. Kimberley Reid says:

    Great topic! I think memes help you to connect with people and feel less alone. For example, if you have a weird habit, interest or if you do something embarrassing and there is a meme about it, then you can see that you’re not the only person who does it-thousands of strangers around the world are as awkward/uncoordinated/odd as you 🙂

  11. Tjioe Marvin says:

    Great explanation, never thought this before or think where the meme come from 🙂

  12. Paul Hanley says:

    Great post. I spend a lot of time looking at and occasionally making the odd meme and I feel less pathetic after reading this post haha. It feels like memes are accelerating recently. The old 4chan memes lasted years and now if you see a meme template being used that is a few weeks old (like envious dude/ jealous gf meme) it seems very out of date.

  13. Jennifer Feinstein says:

    Really interesting ideas. I never even thought there was a science behind memes! Now that I think about it, when my partner and I share memes with each other it helps us laugh together and thus I think they strengthen our relationship :).