An Internet meme is a cultural phenomenon that spreads from one person to another online. In general, a meme is an idea that is passed from one person and possibly one generation to another througout a culture. Online, a meme is a prime example of viral content.
A meme spread online could be just about anything that is voluntarily shared, including phrases, images, rumors and audio or video files. In most cases, meme content is brief. In the case of an image, it's usually just a picture with a line or two of text. An Internet meme might originate and stay online. However, frequently memes cross over and may spread from the offline world to online or vice-versa.
Examples of Internet memes include:
- In 2016, The Sad Men meme comemorated difficult moments in the lives of various well-known men. Sad Ben Affleck, for example, features the actor responding to questions about the "mixed" response to his movie "Batman v. Superman."
- The hashtag #PopeBars went viral in 2015, along with many images of Pope Francis in which he appears to be about to launch into a rap.
- In 2007, the RickRoll bait-and-switch prank became popular, serving videos of Rick Astley singing "Never Gonna Give You Up" to users who had clicked disguised links. In 2015, a RickRoll revival illustrated the generational aspect of meme spread.
- Ryan Gosling won't eat his cereal -- a compilation of video clips with the actor dramatically refusing to open his mouth for a proffered spoonful. When the viral video's creator Ryan McHenry died of cancer, the actor posted a tribute video in which he did, indeed, eat the cereal.
- LOLcats -- images of cats with semi-literate captions, such as "I can has cheezeburger?"
- DogShame - images of dogs wearing signs around their necks.
- The Crazy Frog video.
- The Bride Has Massive Hair Wig Out video, secretly created by hair product manufacturers Sunsilk in an attempt to sow seeds for an upcoming advertising campaign.
- Images of then-president George Bush falling off a Segway in 2003. (This meme sparked follow-up videos of various vertebrates successfully riding the vehicles, including Barbara Bush and a chimpanzee.)
- The 25 random things about me list that propagated throughout Facebook.
- The Dancing Baby - popular meme during the early days of the Internet.
- Words such as pwn (meaning to defeat or dominate).
According to Lauren Ancel Meyers, a biology professor at the University of Texas, memes spread through online social networks similarly to the way diseases do through offline populations. Fittingly, viral marketing campaigns often attempt to create a meme.
Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in his 1976 book, "The Selfish Gene." As conceived by Dawkins, a meme is a unit of cultural meaning, such as an idea or a value, that is passed from one generation to another. A meme is the cultural counterpart to the unit of physical heredity, the gene.