Internet meme

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Internet Memes are user-generated content (UGC) that propagate at high speed through the Internet. Through the past decade, memes have become deeply ingrained in Internet culture. These ideas and concepts evolve over time as they are transferred from person to person making them viral. Memes can take the form of hyperlinks, pictures, websites, GIFs, words, videos, or sayings, and often convey sarcastic or satirical phrases. They are frequently replicated templates with slight comedic content variation throughout the web. The most common format on the Internet are pictures. Internet memes are spread by sharing on social networks such as Tumblr, 4chan, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, or through blogs, news sites, and more. Memes are created every day, through different meme-generating sites and constantly evolving trends on the Internet. Ethical issues associated with memes include control of the meme (or lack thereof) as it spreads, privacy of the people depicted in popular memes, copyright issues (specifically Article 13's effect on memes), disguised ads that look like memes, and differences in monetary capitalization from memes based on racial biases and embedded culture.

Origin of the Word

Richard Dawkins first introduced the concept of a meme in his book The Selfish Gene. According to Dawkins, memes can be ideas, phrases, fashion, tunes, or ways of doing things. Similar to how genes propagate, memes propagate through a process known as "imitation", which can be described similar to copying a behavior that one person sees another do. Memes are seen as living structures. They are born by one person and when they are spread, they grow and mature to a point where new memes branch off of them.[1][2]


Image of a lazy senior internet meme.

Internet Memes in Communities

PostSecret, a community mail art project turned Internet phenomenon, began offline before moving to a blog. People mail in anonymous secrets on postcards to the creator of PostSecret, who posts images of these postcards on the site.[3]

The popularity of memes can also be seen in the way people are offended on sites such as Reddit or Tumblr when a meme is used in an incorrect manner. This can lead users of the sites to write insulting comments in reply to the memes that are posted. Sometimes, these memes are posted specifically to enrage those people who are easily offended by the improper usage of memes.

The incorrect use of the picture of the ancient aliens meme with the wording that would be stereotypical of the Boromir meme.


Many memes originated as sayings or jokes that became popular after circulating YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, or Tumblr. A large chunk of the memes that spread very quickly throughout the Internet are pictures with text included either above it, below it, or overlayed on top of it. With programs like Adobe Photoshop, it is relatively easy to create one's own version of a popular Internet meme.

Since Photoshop is an expensive software, websites have been created that focus on creating and sharing Internet memes. One of these sites is Quickmeme, where users can choose from the images that have already been created and choose their own saying to overlay or upload their own photo to make an entirely new meme. On the main page of the website, users can scroll through memes to view those that have been created. QuickMeme also has a voting system that allows users to choose which memes they enjoy the most, and then filter memes based on their scores and popularity.[4] Unfortunately, the page is not up to date with many of the memes that have become popular among Internet users in recent years.

In addition to being able to "meme" popular pictures that circulate through the Internet, there are also apps for iOS and Android on which users can "meme" their own photos. This usually consists of being able to place a block of the standard meme text over a picture on his or her phone. GroupMe is one of these apps. When a user uploads a picture to GroupMe to share it with a person or group, they have the option to overlay text on the picture for a comedic meme effect. These "memes" do not qualify as the original definition of a meme, but the term "meme" has started to become synonymous with "funny picture with a funny caption on it". Other users have used native Windows and OSX applications to create memes, such as Microsoft Powerpoint, Word, Paint or a simple native photo-editing and viewing application.



The creator of this lolcat attributes this cat's apparent excitement or happiness to its consumption of pills. [5]

A lolcat, which comes from the texting acronym "lol" (meaning "laugh out loud") combined with the word "cats", is one example of an internet meme, believed to have been started by users on 4chan. A lolcat depicts a cat and a humorous tagline. There are two common forms of lolcats:

  • An image of a cat bordered in black with a short tagline beneath the image.
  • An image of a cat with a short tagline at the top, bottom, or top and bottom of the image.

Lolcat memes frequently display a cat in a peculiar position or with an unusual expression. Similar memes have been created without a cat as the main focus and are referred to as 'lols'.


There are apps associated with LOLcats, available for both iOS[6] and Android[7] users. These apps have very large collections of lolcats. Users can scroll through them with ease, and without having to filter out other content. These apps were very popular in 2012, but the last update for LOLcats on iOS was made on June 23, 2016. The last update for Random LOLcats on Android was made on April 14, 2015.

Classic photo of Rugby Player David "Wolfman" Williams planking from the "Know Your Meme" website


Planking is considered a "photo fad" meme, which involves lying face down with arms to the sides in unusual public spaces and then photographing the scene and sharing the image online. The planking phenomenon started when a pro-rugby player planked after a play during the match. Planking is also considered to be a successor to the phenomenon know as Lying Down Game and Playing Dead.[8]

"Y U NO" Guy

The "Y U NO" Guy meme is an image that is usually captioned with writing usually seen in text-messaging including shorthand, abbreviations, and carefree grammar. The meme us often used in a sarcastic tone potentially used to mock those who text in aforementioned styles. [9]

Forever Alone Meme

"Forever Alone" Guy

Forever Alone is a rage comic image macro used to express loneliness and/or disappointment with one's life. Users of rage comic macros often employ Forever Alone in deadpan-style for comedic effect.

Know Your Meme

Know Your Meme is not in itself an example of a meme but is a website that follows trends of memes and other online phenomena, such as viral videos and catchphrases in a continually evolving encyclopedic fashion. The site includes memes that are no longer popular, as well as trending topics that are less than a day old. [10]

First World Problems

First World Problems image
The meme, thought to have sprung from the lyrics of a 1995 Matthew Good Band song, is viral on social websites including Tumblr, twitter, and reddit, and replicates on the site [11] “First World Problems” enjoys a robust life among first worlders by employing the rhetorical canons of invention and style to illuminate third world reality. It provides a forum for first worlders to commiserate socially about their daily stresses while building social awareness of those less fortunate. Each replication of this meme creates a new satirical yet ironic glimpse into a trivial first world problem. The category of Quickmeme, labeled “First World Problems,” shows the photo of a sobbing woman in anguish holding her hand to her forehead. The meme’s trademark is to pair an incongruous photo and text creating a satirical commentary on first world life. The dramatic picture is taken out of context and shown with unrelated text about mundane or esoteric situations. This cleverly builds the irony of these two juxtaposed elements as dramatic vs. non-dramatic. The meme has changed the context of the third world and first world in that now the two realities are no longer about geographic distance, but about cultural differences. The third world is a part of each culture.

Ethical Concerns


One ethical concern of the internet meme is the lack of control as it spreads online. Due to the sarcastic nature of memes, groups can take offense to the content. Unfortunately, once memes have been spread online, they become impossible to remove.[12] With the rise of social media, the fast pace that memes spread is nearly unstoppable.This often makes it nearly impossible to control the spreading of a controversial image. This can have many negative effects when the content is harmful or offensive. Although there is no way to stop an image from spreading, there are ways to mitigate some of the harm.


While the sarcasm in memes provides direct humor in the appropriate context, memes appearing out of context can cause much distress. It allows for the tinkering of content, which change how the message is received. It is possible for anyone who sees a meme on the Internet to usurp it and write something that they believe is funny. As a result, memes carry a destructive, antagonistic and alienating culture through the amplification of its content.

The increased presence of meme-creating outlets allows people to craft pictures and post them to the Internet within minutes. Memes can be customized with a picture and caption on a meme-creating platform. Once the meme is created, it is easy to share and edit. This ease causes the ethical issues of cyberbullying. Users can easily create and spread derogatory memes. Sometimes, due to the harmless reputation of memes, an avid meme user might mistakenly share a meme without realizing its insulting nature.

Some common derogatory memes include kids with down syndrome used to poke fun at them and degrade other people. They often are used to mock the facials and expressions of kids with special needs to degrade supporters of the opposing political party.

Some memes are even born from tragic incidences. On May 28th, 2016 when a gorilla named Harambe was shot at the Cincinnati Zoo after a child climbed into the gorilla's enclosure, the public had mixed feelings about the situation and some felt that the shooting was unfair. First, there was grief for the gorilla and "Justice for Harambe" memes spread widely across the internet. Later, the meme was used to harass the Cincinnati Zoo and even used in a racist capacity such as in the case against "Ghostbusters" actress Leslie Jones [13] and former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama [14].


A possibly offensive 'Scumbag Steve' meme
'Overly Attached Girlfriend' in real life

Some examples of popular internet memes are: Bad Luck Brian, Scumbag Steve, and Good Guy Greg. These memes use pictures of actual people, which raises the issue of informed consent. In some cases, such as Ridiculously Photogenic Guy, the person depicted has adopted the meme as a part of their personality. Other times, the model will choose to ignore his or her viral fame; however, memes that have negative connotations attached to their images such as Bad Luck Brian and Scumbag Steve create negative consequences that are harder to manage. The people depicted in these memes may be misrepresented or unfavorably portrayed, thus making it harder to deal with the infamy that comes from an unwelcome depiction of oneself.

Children's Privacy and Viral Memes

There have been numerous incidences of memes capturing children in various circumstances that have gone viral and caused backlash. In 2018, a meme of 2-year old girl screaming in fear of the Easter Bunny that was visiting her daycare went viral. Thousands shared the post on various social media platforms poking fun at the child's frantic reaction and using the meme to describe different feelings or reactions to personal circumstances and experiences. The family of this child only found out the video had gone viral after it was too late, racking up millions of views and even being featured on 'Jimmy Kimmel Live.' [15] Despite the workers at the daycare having to sign a document prohibiting them from taking videos and sharing photos of the children, this daycare worker didn't think twice before making fun of the child's reaction and then posting it online for everyone to see. Instances such as these can have devastating consequences as many people have left racist and inappropriate comments on this specific video. This child's privacy, and dignity, have been compromised by this careless act and this meme will most likely follow her for the rest of her life.


People frequently recycle memes by making edits to previously existing means. For example, many use the same image but add a new caption. The raises questions of ownership and copyright. If someone takes ownership of a meme, reuse of a meme's image or alterations of the meme may be seen as plagiarism or copyright infringement.

In fact, the very purpose of sites like Quickmeme is to take templates for various image macros and allow users to place their own text over the pictures, thus allowing them to create their own meme. Little or no consideration is given to the original owners of the pictures, even though several popular backgrounds (like First World Problems and Scumbag Teacher) are from stock photo sites that sell their pictures.

Article 13

Memes and meme creators have been a large part of the conversation surrounding the European Union's new copyright law, Article 13. Previously, the owners of copyrighted material to report violations one websites. Article 13 requires that the companies that own the websites hosting content to monitor violations, which would likely result in pre-filtering of content to prevent its upload in the first place. This would mean huge numbers of memes, a majority of which follow formats with stills from copyrighted material, would be prevented from making it onto the internet, which has enraged a huge number of users.

Artists and media firms are arguing that they're losing out on profits from user generated content that uses their intellectual property. Tech giants have argued against the law, with Google stating the law will "hurt Europe's creative and digital economies" [16]. The European Parliament believes a common ground between the two can be found where artists get the money they deserve while allowing user generated content to survive. They recently amended the law to exempt content that includes copyrighted material "for purposes of quotation, criticism, review, caricature, parody and pastiche" from the law[17]. The European Parliament says this will protect memes and GIFs from the law, but some people continue to doubt it will be enforced without taking down valid content.

Meme Sharing Sites

There are platforms, such as QuickMeme, that allow people to post advertisements between clusters of memes. These advertisements are similar in size to the memes being displayed. Some argue that this forces the user to look at an ad, often without consent since it appears directly in the center of the screen instead of to the side.

Monetary Capitalization

Memes can become a lucrative business, as evident from recent popular phenomenons' attempts to capitalize on their viral popularity. Two notable examples are Danielle Bregoli, best known as the "Cash Me Outside" Girl, and Peaches Monroee, who coined the now popular term "on fleek." [18] [19] Bregoli, whose appearance and performance on Dr. Phil lead to viral fame after her use of the term "cash me outside," has been able to financially support herself with her newfound popularity. She has received promotional deals and appearances that offer her compensation in the range of $40,000 to $50,000. On the other hand, Monroee's coining of the term "on fleek," which has been used by several large corporations and reprinted on clothing, has not seen any sort of compensation or recognition for her idea[20].

The cases of both of these young women represent an ethical dilemma associated with the popularization of meme culture in mainstream media and copyright issues as a whole. Bregoli and potentially Monroee can capitalize off of their celebrity as a result of the phrases they've coined. Unfortunately, they cannot capitalize off of the phrases themselves or trademark them because the law is not up to date with technology[20]. This interpretation is affiliated with a complicated use of copyright laws — very specific ideas can be protected, but the idea itself cannot. Other than the repeated commodification of term "on fleek" without Monroee receive her proper due, another ethical dilemma at the crux of meme usage and compensation is the racial inequalities present in Monroee's situation in comparison to Bregoli's. Monroee is a Black woman, while Bregoli is a young White woman; the differences in their abilities to capitalize off of their respective phrases — successful for Bregoli and unsuccessful for Monroee — has sparked outrage amongst various Twitter users[20]. Monroee, and other Black individuals who have managed to have their talent go viral and memed, are unable to protect themselves against corporate interests. The implications of their inability to succeed and gain financial benefits from their ideas, versus Bregoli's relative ease at doing so, highlights institutionalized racial injustices and biases embedded within mainstream culture.

See Also

External Links


  1. Dawkins, R. (2017). "Memes, The New Replicators." Retrieved from
  2. McDonald, A. (2018, March 15). This Is Where The Word 'Meme' Comes From, And It's Not The Internet. Retrieved April 19, 2018, from
  3. PostSecret. (2017). PostSecret. Retrieved 6 April 2017, from
  4. Quickmeme: the funniest page on the internet. (2017). Quickmeme. Retrieved 6 April 2017, from
  5. Lolcats
  6. "LOLcats Free" [1]. Retrieved 20 April 2017.
  7. "Random LOLcats" [2]. Retrieved 20 April 2017.
  8. Planking. (2011). Know Your Meme. Retrieved 18 April 2017, from
  9. "Y U NO" Guy. (2011). Know Your Meme. Retrieved 18 April 2017, from
  10. Know Your Meme. (2017). Know Your Meme. Retrieved 18 April 2017, from
  11. First World Problems
  12. Memes and ethics in the new participatory web. (2017). Careermash. Retrieved 18 April 2017, from
  13. Rogers, K. (2016). The Complicated Appeal of the Harambe Meme. The New York Times. Retrieved 18 April 2017, from
  14. Roy, J. (2017). Harambe Was the Meme We Couldn't Escape in 2016. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 18 April 2017, from
  15. CBS News. (2018). Family outraged after video of toddler frightened by the Easter Bunny goes viral.
  16. Browne, Ryan. “What Europe's Copyright Overhaul Means for YouTube, Facebook and the Way You Use the Internet.” CNBC, CNBC, 29 Mar. 2019,
  17. Kleinman, Zoe. “Article 13: Memes Exempt as EU Backs Controversial Copyright Law.” BBC News, BBC, 26 Mar. 2019,
  18. Miller, Jenny: ‘On Fleek’ Teen Peaches Monroee Launches GoFundMe for Cosmetics Line
  19. Cacich, Allision: Is "Cash Me Outside" Girl Danielle Bregoli Already a Millionaire? Get the Scoop!
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Feldman, Brian: The Woman Who Invented ‘on Fleek’ Still Hasn’t Seen a Dime for It
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