What is a Meme? All You Need to Know

Memes, like any other form of communication, are cultural shorthand that evolves with its users. It would be impossible to claim familiarity with every meme out there because there are simply too many, and they often carry personal significance to the individuals who create and share them. However, there are certain common elements that can aid in understanding them.

What Makes a Meme a Meme?

Despite the seemingly enigmatic nature of memes, chances are you’ve encountered at least one that resonated with you over the years. Whether you participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, possess a “Keep Calm” mug on your work desk, or have used words like “fail” or “winning” ironically or not, you have engaged with a meme. You learned about it through word of mouth, grasped its meaning, altered its context, and adopted it for your own use. These are the essential components defining a meme.

While a precise definition of a meme is elusive, it is most often associated with an image or video that represents a particular concept or idea. This content is typically spread through various online social platforms, including social media, forums, instant messaging apps, and even news sites. During this dissemination, the images and videos conveying the message often undergo alterations, resulting in the evolution of the original idea into something entirely different. Sometimes, a new caption accompanies the images to introduce a modified form.

The meaning and relevance of a meme can be heavily influenced by its context.

Memes can convey significantly more information than simple text. Similar to how emojis are used to express complex emotions, memes can convey intricate ideas, states of mind, or shared understandings far more efficiently than typing out a written explanation of the same idea.

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From Dancing Babies to the Momo Challenge

The notion of a meme can be traced back hundreds of years by some researchers. However, its modern interpretation is widely attributed to British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who introduced the concept in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins described a meme as a cultural entity or idea that replicates, evolves, and spreads from person to person. Little did he know that the term would later encompass countless variations of phrases, images, sounds, and videos, all disseminated through the internet to facilitate a swift and concise exchange of thoughts and ideas.

The first internet meme is often identified as the dancing baby, also known as “Baby Cha-Cha.” This animated GIF of a dancing baby became a viral sensation in 1996. It was widely shared through email chains and even made appearances in popular TV shows like Ally McBeal. However, it wasn’t until the 2010s that memes truly emerged as a cultural phenomenon in their own right. Today, memes represent one of the primary means of online communication, with countless variations of the most popular ones.

The sheer number and diversity of memes that have surfaced over the years make it impossible to provide an exhaustive list or delve into each one in detail (although we have compiled a collection of the most famous ones). From planking and Good Guy Greg to the Momo Challenge, memes come in an incredibly wide range, constantly changing and defying categorization.

The pace of meme creation and sharing is only accelerating, making it an impossible task to learn or understand them all. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t make an effort to grasp the most significant ones.

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How to Understand a Meme

Some memes are more accessible to understand than others. The simplest ones are known as “image macro” memes, which typically feature an expressive image accompanied by block text. They effectively convey an emotional state in a straightforward manner and acknowledge a shared experience between the creator and the viewer.

Others can be more elusive. For example, something like Slender Man might appear ominous or dangerous. Some memes can be cryptically obscure, referencing an episode of a TV show or movie from decades ago. Understanding the origins of such memes requires delving into contextual details that may be deeply buried.

The importance of understanding a meme depends on why you wish to do so. If your aim is to use it yourself, grasping the rough idea from its latest usage is often sufficient to create your own version and be part of the joke.

If you seek to comprehend a meme to determine its appropriateness for your children, students, or dependents, the best approach is to consult them directly. Resources like Know Your Meme and Wikipedia (for well-known memes) can offer further insights into a meme’s origin and its development over time. It is crucial to note, however, that memes are constantly evolving. How the people you care about use these memes could be entirely personalized to them, and they might even have their own collection of lesser-known, personal creations.

The majority of memes are intended to be humorous, and their impact relies on how they are perceived and used by those who view them. If someone in your life frequently shares or enjoys memes that leave you puzzled, don’t hesitate to ask them to explain the meaning. If necessary, you can then discuss the broader significance beyond the communication tools and platforms where these memes thrive.

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Alternatively, you can embark on your own meme-making journey if you have an interest in doing so. Popular websites like ImgFlip and Kapwing’s Meme Maker provide excellent starting points for your new meme-making hobby. Our comprehensive guide offers easy-to-follow steps to assist you along the way.

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