What The Hell is a Meme? Definition and Examples

What is a Meme
What is a Meme

Popularly, a meme is a type of content that spreads through social media is known as a meme, which consists of the deliberate association of elements (for example, an image and a text) in the same significant unit, resulting in the representation of an idea, concept, opinion or situation. They are often specifically called internet memes.

Memes have gained great value as a cultural manifestation, since they not only occupy a role in digital society as a form of entertainment, but also communicate values ​​and opinion matrices. They allow, therefore, to register or capture the ideas-force that move in the collective imagination.

The word meme refers to ideas, behaviors or styles that are culturally spread between people . It was coined by Richard Dawkings in his book “The Selfish Gene.” It is a derivative of the Greek “mimema” that refers to what is imitated.

This concept has been transferred to the internet to describe ideas that go viral or are massively replicated through social networks, blogs, emails … and they pass from person to person in an explosive way.

What is a meme?

The format of a meme can be a phrase, an image, a video or a more abstract concept . In general, their theme is humorous, bordering on the absurd, although sometimes they also become small philosophical pills. Therefore, we should never think that a meme is just a joke .

What characterizes memes is that they become an international phenomenon spreading the same images or jokes in all parts of the world.

Do not expect to find great works of art, Paint is the most common in this practice as well as the simplest montages with Photoshop, aesthetics do not prevail in the world of memes, but what they intend to convey.

Origin of the word meme

The word meme was created by Richard Dawkins in 1976, long before the advent of the Internet. It is a neologism that results from the adaptation between the English word gene (which means gene) and the words memory and mimesis (imitation).

Dawkins first introduced the word meme in his book The Selfish Gene , framed in the theories of cultural diffusion. It originally referred to a minimum unit of cultural information that is transmitted from subject to subject and from generation to generation, either by teaching, imitation or assimilation. In this way, memes are to culture what genes are to biology.

In their original sense, memes range from ideas to verbal expressions, gestures, theories, opinions and all kinds of values ​​and symbolic goods that compete with each other to transmit and integrate themselves as part of the consolidated culture.

The novel, viral and influential nature of Internet memes soon became a phenomenon of enormous interest to the social and communication sciences, resulting in the appropriation of the name created by Dawkins.

Origin and evolution of memes

Some place the background of the meme in the famous animated video “Dancing Baby”, “Baby Cha-Cha” or “the Oogachacka Baby”, which was widely disseminated through the world wide web and email in the second half of the decade. from 1990, to the point that she appeared in the most watched TV series of the time, Ally McBeal.


Screenshot of “Dancing Baby”

Internet memes, as we know them, appeared approximately between 2000 and 2002. Their process of evolution and viralization is closely related to the main function of the Internet: sharing information, a process that has been facilitated since the development of the main social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, WhatsApp and others.

Along with this, the creation of memes has multiplied thanks to the appearance of pages and applications (apps) that offer services such as meme generators, as well as databases.

The role of memes

At an elementary level, memes have the function of transmitting a message. This can be an opinion, a concept or an idea. It is not uncommon for memes to turn to humor and / or irony.

In any case, memes are an expression of the values ​​that circulate in society and compete to become hegemonic. Its success, however, depends on the recipient sharing the same cultural references as the sender of the message.

On another level, many memes collaborate in the propaganda of masked people or products. For this reason, the mechanism of the viralization of memes is often associated with viral marketing campaigns that, indirectly, position a figure or product in the market, making it a recognizable reference before or after the official launch.

Characteristics of memes

According to Limor Shifman, the memes that manage to go viral are characterized by sharing the following elements:

  • Longevity: that is, the ability to signify over time;
  • Fertility: the message is clear, which increases its incidence and possibility of replication;
  • Fidelity when replicating: the original meaning of the meme is maintained in the replication.

Types of internet memes

According to the format

Picture memes:

This type of memes uses the association of images and text. The interrelation between all these elements generates a new meaning.


Internet Faces

They are those memes of images that associate an expressive face with some sentence or reasoning. As a rule, these faces are typified.

Internet memes trending faces examples:

  • Fuuuu
  • Poker face
  • Forever Alone
  • Troll face
  • OK
  • LOL Face
  • Challenge accepted
  • Cereal guy

memesExample of icons most used in Internet Faces type memes.