The concept of a “meme” is something I’ve only recently managed to get my head around. So how would you put it?

“An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means”…?

Um, well thank you Mr Oxford. [aside:  …??? An element of culture? What does that even mean?!]


Virally transmitting culture?
Image: “Virus rezon” [CC BY-SA 3.0] by DROUET on Wikimedia Commons

Other definitions talk about “cultural symbols” or “social ideas” that are “virally-transmitted”. Now we’re gettin’ warm. Even daggy parent-of-adolescents types like me will have seen the chuckle-inducing captioned animal pics that have been doing the global email rounds for years. I guess “meme”, like “pop culture” itself (see paragraph 6 of my recent post on the subject), is easier to recognise than it is to define.

Wikipedia tells me that the term “meme” was first coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, to explain “spread of ideas and cultural phenomena” in terms of evolutionary principles. Now we’re talking at least five years before internet protocol was standardised, but obviously if you imagine an idea spreading virally these days, the internet – social media in particular – has to be the way to do it. The web is the speediest and most far-reaching ‘grapevine’ around. Back in 1976, Dawkins’ examples of memes included “melodies, catch-phrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches”. Not much has changed it seems …erm, with the possible exception of the arches.

What internet memes are you familiar with? 

What springs to mind when you hear the words “internet” and “viral”  in the same sentence…? Mine is a sheltered existence – I don’t watch TV, rarely read a newspaper and am a self-confessed Facebookophobe; in fact I don’t really have any social media presence to speak of… but I can still rattle off a few internet memes from recent (and not-so-recent) years:

The dancing baby of Ally McBeal fame – grotesque I agree, but that was pretty impressive animation back in the day…

Cute Disco Alien (speaking of impressive ‘amateur’ animation)… I STILL get a kick out of this one…

Star Wars kid – remember him? (poor fellow)… I often share this sad and sorry story with my students when we talk about responsible internet posting. What started as a private selfie video was discovered and released, inspiring a string of embellishments and parodies. Did anyone think to ask the permission of the maker and subject of the video? Or stop to consider the possible effects of internet publication? Admittedly, this all came to pass over a decade ago …but what have we learned? Read more about it here.

LOL Cats – I’m no cat lover but those are seriously funny.


Image posted on Juxtapost [http://www.haikudeck.com/p/LzNfv3JU6z]

OK Go music video – who could forget that ingenious treadmill choreography?? Be honest – did you ever dream of making a copycat version?

Charlie bit me – I’m still scratching my head about the appeal of this one really, but it was notably the first ever YouTube video my now-teenage son showed me. He heard about it at school.

Planking – may have endured to be more than a passing fad if it hadn’t caused the death of a guy in Brisbane. Then again… maybe not.


Image: “Planking Arnhem” [CC BY-NC 2.0] by Marco Derksen on Flickr

Four memes that make the headlines last year are explored in the infographic below:

A Deep Dive into the Internet Meme

by MDGadvertising.
Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

So what makes an idea ‘go viral’?

There seems to be a number of indefinable reasons. The same social phenomenon that causes something to be ‘popular’ has a magic effect on the human pinky finger (you know, the digit that hits the “submit” or “send” button!). Psy’s supreme internet virality seems to have been a lucky accident – the internet stars simply aligned in his favour sufficiently to earn him massive global airplay (perhaps some unseasonably inclement weather coincided with a global slump in high-rating TV viewing opportunities?). About.com’s Web Trends explains the history of the Gangnam phenomenon in some detail.

By contrast, Kony 2012 was a deliberate attempt to achieve viral status that backfired, turning sour for reasons  outlined in the above infographic. Read more on the Kony debacle, from a behavioural science perspective, here.

This article on the “Overly attached girlfriend” meme explains the history of one accidental and unintentional internet meme that may make the process clearer for the uninitiated. This story also highlights the important role of social media sites such as Reddit and Tumblr in meme transmission.

According to About.com, we are more likely to see memes that appeal to young people (adolescents to 30-somethings), as they are active on social media in sufficient numbers to successfully propagate an internet meme. Usually, ideas, images or expressions that are amusing or shocking in some way will grab the attention and be passed on. About.com has also published “10 Tips for Going Viral” for those who are hell bent on achieving internet fame, or else just mildly interested in exploiting the marketing potential of meme-ism.

If, like me, you often find yourself in the middle of a crowd of hysterical co-workers or friends, staring at the captioned image they think is so clever / hilarious / familiar while you scratch your head… here are a couple of searchable websites you can visit to get the juice on the memes you missed!

If you don’t need the detailed background history but are keen to follow meme news, then keep your eyes on Buzzfeed – relatively new-kid-on-the-block (even by internet standards) dedicated pop culture search engine (read about the launch here).

What are the Implications for Educators?

Apart from the bafflement that so MANY people have so much TIME on their hands and so LITTLE else of substance to think about, you mean??

I guess it’s the ‘same old’ message: We need to teach our students to be critical consumers; to question the underlying beliefs, values and assumptions behind what they read, watch and listen to. They must also be astute and responsible about what they pass on to others, and in how they publicly respond to or comment on material. Let’s not forget the power of the internet to spread an idea that may help to improve the world. Memes can be one way to promote a good cause or to make a political statement that raises awareness about something important to the community. Many memes contain adult, offensive or harmful content but even young kids could try creating their own memes and experiment (safely) with ways to make their ideas ‘go viral’ within their school community. You could take the opportunity to discuss the efficacy of creating memes with negative intentions such as to embarrass, tease or slander. Edutopia recently published a post on “Ten Takeaway Tips for Teaching Critical Thinking” if you’re interested in exploring some more general critical thinking ideas.

Our ultimate goal is to help our youngest internet consumers to eventually take up their role in digital age participatory culture as ethical and responsible digital citizens.

…They can still have a whole lot of fun while they’re doing that!


Image posted on “The Best Baby Memes of All Time” [http://fb-troublemakers.com/12-of-the-best-baby-memes-of-all-time-8151/]

What are your ideas about using memes in the classroom?

Do you have a favourite meme to share?


6 thoughts on “Rise of the Internet Meme

  1. Maria, I had never actually heard the term meme..it was on my list of terminology to find out about. Your explanation cleared it up for me and now I ma going to go searching for some goods ones. Does that Korean dance star guy count as one???

  2. Cathy I definitely think Psy with his Gangnam style video counts as a meme – I found it mentioned in several lists as one of the “biggest” memes of 2012. There’s a really interesting article about the history of this meme, including what ‘gangnam’ actually refers to in Korea. Check out the link at the end of the “What makes an idea go viral?” paragraph above.
    I think it’s a sure sign that you’re sitting on a successfully viral meme when the parodies start appearing. I’ve seen several Minecraft Gangnam style parodies! They’re amazing. Check this one out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snJxEaZstyc
    Anyway, I really think this is one of the best things about studying – when we hear these new terms and only have a vague idea of what they mean, we can justify spending hours researching what they’re all about.
    Thanks very much for the comment!

  3. Pingback: Copyright + Popular Culture = Creative Commons | The Grapevine

  4. Pingback: Copyright + Pop Culture = Creative Commons | The Grapevine

  5. Good use of hyperlinks, images and subheadings Maria – and a helpful post for educators too! Lots of folks still ask me to explain what a meme is, and it’s a bit hard to do without examples on hand. Cheers!

  6. Thank you for such an informative post, Maria! I had no idea what a meme was, although now I realise I’ve seen many. I agree that kids could have A LOT of fun creating memes. And I must also admit the first meme that came to mind was Gangnam style for me too! 🙂

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