What Makes Memes So Catchy?

The Elements of a Meme and What Makes One Popular

An example of the "one does not simply" meme.

We all know that the internet is awash in memes, from Grumpy Cat to Batman slapping Robin, to planking and the Ice Bucket Challenge, but have you ever asked yourself why?

To understand what it is that makes memes so popular and certain memes so catchy, one first has to understand exactly what a meme is.

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Memes ― What Are They?

The dab dance or "dabbing" was a popular meme of 2016.
Carolina Panther teammates do 'the dab' during the finals seconds of the NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Bank of America Stadium on January 17, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Carolina Panthers defeated the Seattle Seahawks 31-24. Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The English scholar Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in 1976 in his book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins developed the concept as part of his theory of how cultural elements spread and change over time in the context of evolutionary biology.

According to Dawkins, a meme is an element of culture, like an idea, behavior or practice, or style (think clothes but also art, music, communication, and performance) that spreads from one person to another through imitation. For example, the dab dance, or "dabbing" is a notable example of a performative meme that came to prominence during late 2016.

Just as biological elements can be viral in nature, so too are memes, which in passing from person to person often evolve or mutate along the way.

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Internet Memes Are a Particular Type of Meme

Grumpy cat meme
One of many Grumpy Cat memes.

What we are most likely to think of as a meme—an internet meme—is a type of meme that exists online as a digital file and that is spread specifically via the internet. Internet memes consist not just of image macros, which are a combination of image and text like this Grumpy Cat meme, but also as photos, videos, GIFs, and hashtags.

Typically, internet memes are humorous, satirical, and/or ironic, which is a key part of what makes them appealing and encourages people to spread them, though not exclusively. Some memes depict a performance that showcases a skill, like music, dance, or physical fitness.

Just like memes as defined by Dawkins are propagated person-to-person through imitation (or copying), so too are internet memes, which are digitally copied and then spread anew by anyone who shares them online.

So, not just any old image with text slapped on it is a meme, despite what sites like encourage you to believe. Elements of them, like the image or text, or actions performed in a video or depicted in a selfie, must be copied and spread en masse, including creative alterations, in order to qualify as a meme. 

What is it exactly, then, that turns some digital files into memes and others not? Dawkins' theory helps us to answer this question.

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What Makes a Meme a Meme?

The Be Like Bill meme was one of the most popular memes of 2016.
The Be Like Bill meme was one of the most popular memes of 2016.

According to Dawkins, what makes a meme a meme, or something that is successfully spread, copied, and/or adapted from person to person, are three key things: copy-fidelity, or the possibility of the thing in question to be accurately copied; fecundity, or the speed at which the thing is replicated; and longevity, or its staying-power over a period of time. For any cultural element or artifact to become a meme, it must fulfill all of these criteria.

But, as Dawkins pointed out in his book The Selfish Gene, the most successful memes—those that do each of these three things better than others—are those that respond to a particular cultural need or that particularly resonate with contemporary circumstances. In other words, memes that capture the popular zeitgeist are those that are most successful because they are the ones that will capture our attention, inspire a sense of belonging and connectedness with the person who shared it with us, and encourage us to share with others the meme and the collective experience of viewing it and relating to it.

Thinking sociologically, we could say that the most successful memes emerge out of and resonate with our collective consciousness, and because of this, they reinforce and strengthen social ties and ultimately, social solidarity.

The is an example of this phenomenon. Rising to popularity through 2015 and peaking in early 2016, Be Like Bill fills the cultural need of venting frustration with things that people do both offline and online, particularly on social media, that have become normal practice but that many view as obnoxious or stupid. Bill serves as a counterpoint to the behavior in question by demonstrating what is framed as a reasonable or pragmatic alternative behavior.

In this case, the Be Like Bill meme expresses frustration with those who get upset over and/or get into digital arguments about things they see online that they perceive as offensive. Instead, the message is, one should simply go on with one's life.

The many variants of Be Like Bill that exist, and its staying power, are a testament to its success in terms of Dawkins' three criteria for memes. But to better understand what these three criteria are and how they relate to internet memes, let's take a closer look at them.​

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A Meme Must be Replicable

Ellen Degeneres helps Kim Kardashian West with the ice bucket challenge, a popular meme of 2014.
Ellen Degeneres helps Kim Kardashian West complete the Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014.

For something to become a meme it must be replicable, which means many people, beyond the first person to do it, must be able to do it or recreate it, whether it's a real-life behavior or a digital file.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, which went viral on social media during the summer of 2014, is an example of a meme that existed both online and off. Its replicability is based on the minimal skill and resources needed to reproduce it, and that it came with a script in terms of the words spoken to the camera and the actions taken. These factors made it easily replicable, which means it has the "copy fecundity" that Dawkins says is required of memes.

The same can be said for all internet memes​ since digital technology including computer software, internet connectivity, and social media platforms make replicability easy. These also enable ease of creative adaptation, which allows a meme to evolve, which helps increase its staying power.

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A Meme Spreads Quickly

The Gangnam Style video and parodies of it was one of the fastest spreading and most popular memes of all time.

For something to become a meme it must spread fairly quickly in order to take hold within a culture. The video for Korean pop singer PSY's song is an example of an internet meme that spread rapidly due to a combination of sharing of the YouTube video (for a time it was the most viewed video on the site) and the creation of parody videos, reaction videos, and image memes based on it.

The video went viral within days of its release in 2012 and by 2014 its virality was credited with "breaking" the YouTube counter, which hadn't been programmed to account for such high viewing numbers.

Taking Dawkins' criteria together, it's clear that there's a connection between copy-fidelity and fecundity, or the speed at which something spreads, and that technological ability has a lot to do with both.

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Memes Have Staying Power

An example of the "one does not simply" meme.

Finally, Dawkins asserted that memes have longevity, or staying power. If something spreads but doesn't take hold in a culture as a practice or an ongoing reference point then it ceases to exist. In biological terms, it goes extinct.

The is an example of one that has had remarkable staying power, given that it was one of the first internet memes to rise to popularity in the early 2000s.

Originating in a bit of dialog in the 2001 film Lord of the Rings, the One Does Not Simply meme has been copied, shared, and adapted countless times over nearly two decades.

In fact, digital technology can be credited with assisting the staying power of internet memes. Unlike memes that exist exclusively offline, digital technology means that internet memes can never really die because digital copies of them will always exist somewhere. All it takes is an instantaneous search of Google to keep an internet meme alive, but it's only those that remain culturally relevant that will survive and persist on a mass scale.