Many of us will remember the most memorable internet memes as simple images overlaid with witty, often humorous quotes. Memes are a snapshot of the cultural milieu with an underlying message that’s disseminated rapidly.
While memes are mainly used for comic relief, they’ve increasingly been used to provide relevant social commentary, raise awareness to issues, challenge the status quo, or incite change. Memes have emerged as an essential medium of modern communication with immense potential beneath their light-hearted and simple, if not crude, appearance. But they require a keener sense of media literacy than meets the eye.
Esteemed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first defined memes to explain how cultural phenomena like fashion, religion, politics, music, or slogans propagate using the principles of evolution. Dawkins argued that imitation and innovation spread these cultural phenomena much like a virus replicates itself. So much so that the notion of going “viral” has now gone beyond its original medical definition, reinventing itself, and now wholly taking over marketing. The viral nature of memes is what makes them such powerful means of communication. Some memes live, some die, and others achieve near-immortal status.
What Makes Memes So Effective?
Memes are, above all, humorous and accessible to everyone. Anyone and everyone can participate in meme culture. Even novices can produce them, and anyone with a mobile device can access them within moments. Beyond the humor, it’s this communicative dimension that makes memes so effective. While only those in on the meme will understand what the author refers to, memes transcend the boundaries of language and geography because of their intertextuality. They create a sense of community among a diverse community of people who share a common understanding. Even complete strangers can bond over a meme.
Memes rely on their intertextual nature that requires deep knowledge and cognition of literacy to unravel the multiple, complex layers of meaning that memes deliver to their audiences. Furthermore, they also depend on being indexical, which makes them reproducible in the first place. Finding a particular image that can go viral because of how easily it can be edited is another example of the complexity of memes… just like the “wat” granny and “Hide the Pain Harold” memes did.
Here are four key takeaways regarding the effectiveness of memes as a means of modern digital communication:
- The importance of timeliness and relevance. Memes are dependent on timing. A meme’s relevance to current events affects the likelihood of people being influenced by it. Generally, memes that include irrelevant or outdated content won’t fly and die an early death. Successful memes may also refer to a wide variety of events, arts, and cultural themes to reach a particular target group. The more relevant a meme is, the more likely people will interact with and share it. Cultural relevance and trendiness are crucial aspects of what makes memes successful, regardless of categorization. We saw countless memes during the recent 2020 US presidential elections. They all jumped on a particular event or gaffe and were bandied about on social media literally every moment the divisive campaign played out.
- Social validation. Relatability is another crucial factor of successful memes because they can validate an individual’s beliefs and opinions. That’s what we call social validation: the inclination of people to look to their peers to determine whether their behaviors are socially acceptable. Successful memes use social validation tactics to foster a sense of group identity.
- Humor. We can’t forget the importance of humor in memes because their primary purpose is to make audiences laugh. Generally, memes are successful when they’re accessible, humorous, and easy to understand for a global audience. Determining such qualities in a meme is all dependent on the audience that the meme was targeted to. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the more people can identify, appreciate, and relate to a meme’s style of humor, the more likely it will go spread. This critical relation between text and images makes memes different from mere photos with captions. The most successful memes combine visual and textual elements to create multiple contextual meanings. The more an image is used with changing text, or vice-versa, the more potential it has to capture attention and subsequently be shared with more individuals—much akin to how wildfire spreads.
- Diversity. Memes are also relatable because of their sheer diversity—there’s a meme for every person out there, each with its own basis for success. On one end, we have “dank” memes, which are the controversial, edgy memes, or wholesome ones that are generally light-hearted. Meanwhile, generic memes can discuss broader themes such as what student life or a particular profession is like, which expands the appeal of memes to almost everyone.
While none of these four factors guarantees a meme’s success, it’s evident that these are qualities all memes that made it to our collective consciousness possess. As the internet and social media continue to evolve, we’re ready to see what role memes will play next.
So, watch this space—we’re bound to learn more about them as we march towards the digital future.