What is a meme? Young Woman and Memes: Pixel Sunglasses, Doge and Kawaii Cat

What is a meme? We explain it with well-known examples

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You probably know the short answer to the question of what a meme is:

A meme is a funny little picture that has been provided with a short text and is shared en masse on social media and messaging services like WhatsApp.

In 2011, for example, a selfie taken by a crested monkey became an Internet meme.

created with imgflip

With the above description, we have already mentioned the most common medium (image-text combination), the content orientation (all varieties of human humor), the most important distribution channels, as well as virality as a characteristic feature. Other media forms commonly used for memes include:

    • Moving image without sound (animated GIFs)
    • short video clips (audiovisual, i.e. with sound)
    • plain text (written or spoken as audio file)

In principle, therefore, a meme is not tied to a specific medium. You also come across memes in video games or on graffiti, for example. And, of course, it is youth language in particular that new memes flow into, shaping the vocabulary of an entire generation. Do you still remember lolspeak? – The deliberate misspellings that emerged in mid-2000s? If not, you are probably a bit older, not particularly Internet-savvy or you have successfully erased this verbal quirk from your memory. Speaking of the Internet:

If you had to shorten it to one sentence, memes are nothing more than inside jokes that are born on the Internet and go viral.

There are even internet platforms like 9gag or imgur that are primarily about meme creation. Large parts of the Reddit and Twitter communities have also dedicated themselves to producing new memes. And the social game based around memes called What Do You Meme?® has enjoyed great popularity for years. People just like to laugh and want recognition for their creativity. These human constants – humor, creativity and a thirst for recognition – ensure a steady output from the global meme factory, which consumes resources just like a real factory, but that’s just by the way.

A short history of terms

(Brief scientific digression)

Let’s jump back in time once. There were memes before the term existed, of course. In the 19th century, for example, newspapers were the main medium for memes, as this research project shows, and certainly funny sayings and pictures were already scratched into walls in antiquity; graffito originally meant nothing else.
The German term mem has its roots in ancient Greek and is closely related to the word imitation. It was first used in a German philosophical paper in 1948, but remained unpopular at the time. The English equivalent (meme) has been in use since the late 1970s, long before the Internet became popular. It was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and his work The Selfish Gene (published in 1976).

Richard Dawkins meme, Author: Redwoodneo, License: CC BY-SA 3.0, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, at first something else was meant by it. For Dawkins, meme functions as a counter term to gene. In German, this can be summarized as follows: While genes transport biological information, memes (plural of mem) are something like the basic units of cultural information. Furthermore, the hypothesis states that memes are subject to a similar process of change as genes within biological evolution.
Dawkins’ meme theory is controversial, but has been so influential that the term has been taken up in the wake of the digital revolution to describe the Internet phenomenon at issue here. The scope of meaning was thus restricted; after all, the term was originally intended to include all forms of culture.

Regardless of Dawkins, some terms borrowed from biology actually lend themselves well to describing the phenomenon of the Internet meme. We will come back to this below.

Know your meme: The distracted boyfriend

One of the most famous image-text memes of recent years became known as Disctracted Boyfriend . It shows a young man – the boyfriend – looking after a pretty passerby and being caught by his girlfriend. You’ve probably seen it in many different variations. Here’s an early version that led to its breakthrough as a meme in 2017:

Distracted Boyfriend Meme - The Youth, Socialism, Capitalism

The photo that is used here is a stock photo with recreational models who unexpectedly became famous this way. It is by Spanish photographer Antonio Guillem and can be licensed via Shutterstock or Adobe Stock, for example.

The motif is used again and again when illustrating a reorientation or some form of infidelity or betrayal. The labels are then simply replaced. In the meantime, not a day goes by without a new variant of the meme appearing. It is of pandemic virality and literally continues to mutate cheerfully.

How do I create a meme?

Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a Photoshop Philipp to create your own meme variant. There are numerous free offers on the web that promise quick and easy creation, for example, the meme generator from imgflip. However, you should be aware that memes are mostly based on copyrighted content. If you want to be on the safe side when it comes to usage rights, then you should definitely read the section on copyright issues below.

We created our not entirely altruistic version of the Disctracted Boyfriend meme using Adobe Express, and thanks to the handy Adobe Stock connection, we also licensed the underlying photo through it.

Distracted Boyfriend Meme - marketer, cloud-based image management, local harddrive

How does a good meme work?

The distracted boyfriend is suitable because the photo shows an easily comprehensible conflict: Three actors, clear facial expressions and a certain comedy. This simple logical structure makes the motif easily transferable to other situations or topics. It can therefore be used almost universally. In addition, the image is just 160 kilobytes in size and is available as a JPEG file, a format that everyone can use. Thus, it can be shared very easily and thus replicated, as it is called in virologists’ parlance.

We can therefore state:

If you want to create viral content, then you should pay attention to easy decodability, broad applicability and low replication hurdles – and of course the whole thing has to be funny, very funny.

Imitation and replication

File replication means duplication without change, because unlike biological replication, random mutations do not occur. Imitation, on the other hand, always includes change and can have various facets. Classically, one would probably perform parody, homage or persiflage. There may be other terms in Internet slang, but that doesn’t matter. The decisive factor is that an already existing motif is taken up and creatively processed. Of course, the change must not go so far that the original motif is no longer recognizable. The viewer should always be able to mentally exclaim, “Oh, I’ve seen that before in another form!”

So much for the mechanisms of meme formation. In the next section, we would like to venture briefly into the area of tension between memes and copyright.

Are memes subject to copyright?

The answer is YES. A large proportion of the memes circulating are based on copyrighted content. In principle, the corresponding rights of use must be obtained or clarified for the use of third-party content (we have of course done this for the content shown here). This is also true when creating and distributing memes. In practice, however, only a few do this. So creators and rights holders of movies, comics, and other pop culture content generally don’t get paid for their content becoming part of a meme. Indirectly, of course, they can certainly benefit from this, as the level of awareness of their works is increased.

Private individuals are very rarely convicted for copyright reasons for publishing or sharing a meme; they are much more often convicted for other reasons, e.g. if the offense of incitement to hatred or unconstitutionality is involved. Memes of such content are unfortunately also widespread. In addition, personal rights are often violated, not only those of public figures, but also those of private individuals. Of course, the most important of these is the right to one’s own image. For a long time, the Internet was considered a lawless space, but in recent years, people in this country have become more defensible, especially when it comes to hate messages or the violation of personal rights. That’s a good thing, and it certainly won’t make meme culture die out, as some critics fear.

Memes and marketing

Of course, memes are also used as a marketing tool. There are always deliberate attempts to incorporate their own brands and products or forms of intellectual property into a meme. However, these attempts often fail, especially when the commercial intent is clearly evident.

For example, if you want to see how car rental company Sixt has taken up the meme, check out this post on the company’s official Facebook page.

Sixt in particular has already been able to celebrate great marketing successes with provocative memes, but it’s not easy. Free virality is, after all, the holy grail of content marketing: you have to be smart about earning it.

Manage image rights professionally

If you work in the field of marketing and in the course of distributing or sharing photos you have to pay attention to the compliance with copyrights and personal rights, then a professional image management software can help you to keep track of everything and save a lot of routine work. The teamnext | Media Hub is a cloud-based system that leaves nothing to be desired in terms of rights and license management. It is aimed at customers who need to develop, maintain and use larger media pools and place particularly high value on data protection and legal security.

Test the image management of teamnext

If we have made you curious and you just want to try out the various functions of our image management, you can get started immediately with a free 14-day trial period for teamnext | Media Hub. In addition, you can book an appointment for a free online product demo with one of our experts at any time. Simply use our contact form for this purpose.

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