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
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.
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:
- Fidelity – it’s gotta be true.
- Fecundity – enough people have gotta see it.
- 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.