Internet Memes 101: The Basics

My mother started using Facebook earlier than most other adults that I know of and, to her credit, she uses it responsibly. She doesn’t accidentally post statuses meant as private messages, she doesn’t get into arguments with internet strangers, and she shares dog photos. But, one aspect of social media puzzles her to this day: memes.

In this series of posts (which will be published according to no regular basis), I hope to write some explainers to help her (and others!) better appreciate and understand memes.

Given the great diversity of memes, pinning down a single definition is hard to do. In my view, a meme must meet all of the following criteria:

(1) Must be a graphic

Memes are visual entities. People experience and enjoy memes by looking at them. They are generally still images, although animated .GIF files are a noted exception. Sounds and videos are not and cannot be memes. (A viral video can contain meme-like qualities, but is not a meme.)

(2) Must contain content from original source combined with user content

The glue that holds memes together is that they combine content from an original source (usually taken out of context) with user content (usually relating this out-of-context material to real life situations).

(3) Must be created to elicit emotion, generally of humor, relatableness, or anger

Memes are not necessarily intended to be informative or educational. Nor do they exist simply to look pretty or be visually appealing. Memes’ primary purpose is to evoke feelings within the viewers.

(4) Must be shared with at least one other person

If an image that meets the aforementioned qualifications is created on a computer with no access to other people, then it cannot be meme. It must be shared.

An example might help clarify things. In mid-2017, an internet meme known as “Distracted Boyfriend” took the web by storm.  I present to you: Example A. In the photo, a man and a woman holding hands (presumably a heterosexual, monogamous couple) are walking down a city street, and the man has paused to ogle another woman; the presumed girlfriend looks rightfully disgusted.

Example A meets all of the criteria:

  • It is a still image.
  • The original source of the photo is from a stock photoshoot, whereas the text was created  by a user.
  • The graphic seeks to elicit feelings of both humor at the situation but also anger at Donald Trump.
  • It was shared on the internet.

The punchline of the meme is that Donald Trump has mixed up priorities; while he should be caring about “human suffering on an epic scale”, he is preoccupied with “the tiniest perceived insult.”

This same format of meme was also used for thousands of variations, including comments about Phil Collins’ music, economics, and even the original photo itself. This was a quality meme.

There is a lot more to cover, and this post is already running a bit long. But, before I closed, I wanted to briefly touch on a topic that I will cover more in depth in a subsequent post: screenshots from social media. Just as English vowels are A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y, screenshots from social media are sometimes memes. To reiterate, I will cover this in more depth later on, but I did not want to end this post without this caveat.