Question: What Is a 'Meme'? What Are Examples of Modern Internet Memes?
Related: The Top Internet Memes of the Last 15 Years...
Answer: A "meme" is a virally-transmitted cultural symbol or social idea. A meme (rhymes with "team") behaves like a flu or a cold virus, traveling from person to person quickly, but transmitting an idea instead of a lifeform. According to Cecil Adams of theStraightDope.com, the concept of memes "is either really deep, or really, really obvious".
Historically, a meme is a discrete "package of culture" that would travel via word of mouth, usually as a mesmerizing story, a fable/parable, a joke, or an expression of speech. Today, memes travel much faster than simple speech. As internet email forwards, instant messages, and web page links, memes now travel instantly via the Internet.
Most modern internet memes are humor-centered (e.g. Rickrolling, Ask a Ninja, Lolcats, Domo-kun, More Cowbell, Numa Numa Dance). Humor usually reaches the most people, and is the most attractive to forward to others. But many internet memes are also about shock-value and drama (e.g. Angry German Kid, Dogs Go to Heaven). Other memes are urban myths that tout some kind of life lesson (e.g. The Littlest Fireman, Mel Gibson and Man Without a Face, Kurt Warner). A few internet memes are about deep content, and involve social commentary and intellectual absurdity (e.g. Flying Spaghetti Monster, Russell's Orbiting Teapot). In a few cases, a meme can become a conversational expression as well as a viral curiosity (e.g. 'You Mad Bro'. In every case, a package of culture or personal experience spreads between people in a virus-like fashion.
The majority of internet memes are transmitted by adolescents and post-adolescents. This is largely because these two demographics like to message, and have a playful curiousity about memes. But today, the average age of meme-transmitters has increased, as users over 30 years old discover the chuckles and humor about forwarding memes to their friends.
The "meme" word was first introduced by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in 1976. "Meme" comes from the Greek word "mimema" (meaning "something imitated", American Heritage Dictionary). Dawkins described memes as a being a form of cultural propogation, a way for people to transmit social memories and cultural ideas to each other. Not unlike the way that DNA and life will spread from location to location, a meme idea will also travel from mind to mind.
The Internet, by sheer virtue of its instant communication, is how we now spread modern memes to each other's inboxes. A link to a YouTube video of Rick Astley, a file attachment with a Stars Wars Kid movie, an email signature with a Chuck Norris quote... these are a few examples of modern meme symbols and culture spreading through online media.
The bulk of internet memes will continue to be humor and shock-value curiousities, as these grab people's attention more quickly than deeper meme content. But as users become more sophisticated in their thinking, expect memes to become progressively more intellectual and philsophical.
Examples of Modern Internet Memes:
Note: some of the following content is juvenile, and more targeted at adolescents. Some of these following memes are much more adult, and intended for more mature audiences.
Nuts the Squirrel
is a Canadian critter who stole a front spot in a family photo. Today, you can "Squirrelize" your own photos to have Nuts in the foreground.
A prankster meme: people will pretend to send critical business email links in emails, but are actually sending links to Rick Astley music videos from the 1980's.
The absurd gallery of people attaching human behaviors and captions to photos of housecats.
Numa Numa Dance
This chubby lip-syncher, Gary Brolsma, has won the hearts of viewers everywhere.
Next: See the Top Internet Memes of the Last 15 Years...