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Internet meme

Internet meme

An Internet meme, commonly known as just a meme (/miːm/ MEEM),[1][2][3][4] is an activity, concept, catchphrase, or piece of media that spreads, often as mimicry or for humorous purposes, from person to person via the Internet.[5] An Internet meme usually takes the form of an image (traditionally an image macro[6]), GIF or video. It may be just a word or phrase, sometimes including intentional misspellings, (such as in lolcats) or corrupted grammar, as in doge and "All your base are belong to us". These small movements tend to spread from person to person via social networks, blogs, direct email, or news sources. They may relate to various existing Internet cultures or subcultures, often created or spread on various websites. Fads and sensations tend to grow rapidly on the Internet because the instant communication facilitates word of mouth transmission. Some examples include posting a photo of people lying down in public places (called "planking") and uploading a short video of people dancing to the Harlem Shake.

The word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene as an attempt to explain the way cultural information spreads;[7] the concept of the Internet meme was first proposed by Mike Godwin in the June 1993 issue of Wired. In 2013, Dawkins characterized an Internet meme as being a meme deliberately altered by human creativity—distinguished from biological genes and his own pre-Internet concept of a meme, which involved mutation by random change and spreading through accurate replication as in Darwinian selection.[8] Dawkins explained that Internet memes are thus a "hijacking of the original idea", the very idea of a meme having mutated and evolved in this new direction.[9] Furthermore, Internet memes carry an additional property that ordinary memes do not:  Internet memes leave a footprint in the media through which they propagate (for example, social networks) that renders them traceable and analyzable.[10]


In the early days of the Internet, memes were primarily spread via email or Usenet discussion communities. Messageboards and newsgroups were also popular because they allowed a simple method for people to share information or memes with a diverse population of Internet users in a short period. They encourage communication between people, and thus between meme sets, that do not normally come in contact. Furthermore, they actively promote meme-sharing within the messageboard or newsgroup population by asking for feedback, comments, opinions, etc. This format is what gave rise to early Internet memes, like the Hampster Dance. Another factor in the increased meme transmission observed over the Internet is its interactive nature. Print matter, radio, and television are all essentially passive experiences requiring the reader, listener, or viewer to perform all necessary cognitive processing; in contrast, the social nature of the Internet allows phenomena to propagate more readily. Many phenomena are also spread via web search engines, Internet forums, social networking services, social news sites, and video hosting services. Much of the Internet's ability to spread information is assisted from results found through search engines, which can allow users to find memes even with obscure information.[11][12]

Evolution and propagation

Internet memes grew as a concept in the mid-1990s. At the time, memes were just short clips that were shared between people in Usenet forums. As the Internet evolved, so did memes. When YouTube was released in 2005, video memes became popular. Around this time, rickrolling became popular and the link to this video was sent around via email or other messaging sites. Video sharing also created memes such as "Turn Down For What" and the "Harlem Shake". As social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook started appearing, it was now easy to share GIFs and image macros to a large audience. Meme generator websites were created to let users create their own memes out of existing templates. Memes during this time could remain popular for a long time, from a few months to a decade, which contrasts with the fast lifespan of modern memes.[13]

An Internet meme may stay the same or may evolve over time, by chance or through commentary, imitations, parody, or by incorporating news accounts about itself. Internet memes can evolve and spread extremely rapidly, sometimes reaching worldwide popularity within a few days. Internet memes usually are formed from some social interaction, pop culture reference, or situations people often find themselves in. Their rapid growth and impact has caught the attention of both researchers and industry.[14] Academically, researchers model how they evolve and predict which memes will survive and spread throughout the Web. Commercially, they are used in viral marketing where they are an inexpensive form of mass advertising.

One empirical approach studied meme characteristics and behavior independently from the networks in which they propagated, and reached a set of conclusions concerning successful meme propagation.[10] For example, the study asserted that Internet memes not only compete for viewer attention generally resulting in a shorter life, but also, through user creativity, memes can collaborate with each other and achieve greater survival.[10] Also, paradoxically, an individual meme that experiences a popularity peak significantly higher than its average popularity is not generally expected to survive unless it is unique, whereas a meme with no such popularity peak keeps being used together with other memes and thus has greater survivability.[10]

Multiple opposing studies on media psychology and communication have aimed to characterise and analyse the concept and representations in order to make it accessible for the academic research.[15][16] Thus, Internet memes can be regarded as a unit of information which replicates via the Internet. This unit can replicate or mutate. This mutation instead of being generational[7] follows more a viral pattern,[17] giving the Internet memes generally a short life. Other theoretical problems with the Internet memes are their behaviour, their type of change, and their teleology.[15]

Writing for The Washington Post in 2013, Dominic Basulto asserted that with the growth of the Internet and the practices of the marketing and advertising industries, memes have come to transmit fewer snippets of human culture that could survive for centuries as originally envisioned by Dawkins, and instead transmit banality at the expense of big ideas.[18]

"Dank" memes

Dank memes are a subgenre of memes usually involving meme formats but in a different way to image macros. The term "dank", which means "a cold, damp place", was later adapted by marijuana smokers to refer to high-quality marijuana, and then became an ironic term for a type of meme, and also becoming synonymous for "cool".[19] This term originally meant a meme that was significantly different from the norm, but is now used mainly to differentiate these modern types of memes from other, older types such as image macros. Dank memes can also refer to "exceptionally unique or odd" memes.[20] They have been described as "Internet in-jokes" that are "so played out that they become funny again" or are "so nonsensical that they are hilarious".[21] The formats are usually from popular television shows, movies, or video games (such as SpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons) and users then add humorous text and images over it.

One example of a dank meme is the "Who Killed Hannibal", which is made of two frames from a 2013 episode of The Eric Andre Show. The meme features the host Andre shooting his co-host Buress in the first frame and then blaming someone else in the second. This was then adapted to other situations, such as baby boomers blaming millennials for problems that they allegedly caused.[22]

Dank memes can also stem from interesting real-life images that get shared or remixed many times. So-called "moth" memes (often stylized with diacritics on the "o": "möth") came about after a Reddit user posted a close up picture of a moth that they had found outside their window onto the r/creepy subreddit.[23] This image of a moth became popular, and began to be used in memes. These moth memes usually revolved around the moth wanting to find a lamp. According to Chris Grinter, a lepidopterist from the California Academy of Sciences, these memes took off because people find moths' attraction to lamps quite strange and this phenomenon is still not completely explained by science.[24]

Many modern memes stem from nonsense or otherwise unrelated phrases that are then repeated and placed onto other formats. One example of this is "they did surgery on a grape," from a video of a da Vinci Surgical System performing test surgery on a grape.[25] People sharing the post tended to add the same caption to it ("they did surgery on a grape"), and eventually created a satirical image with several layers of captions on it. Memes such as this one continue to propagate as people start to include the phrase in different, otherwise unrelated memes.[26][27][28]

The increasing trend towards irony in meme culture has resulted in absurdist memes not unlike postmodern art. Many Internet memes have several layers of meaning built off of other memes, not being understandable unless the viewer has seen all previous memes. "Deep-fried" memes, memes that have been distorted and run through several filters, are often counter-culture and strange to one not familiar with them.[29] An example of these memes is the "E" meme, a picture of Markiplier photoshopped onto Lord Farquaad from the movie Shrek, photoshopped into a scene from Mark Zuckerberg's hearing in Congress.[30] "Surreal" memes are based on the idea of increasing layers of irony so that they are not understandable by popular culture or corporations.[31] The strange irony has been discussed in the Washington Post article "Why is millennial humor so weird?" as a disconnect from how millennials and other generations conceive of humor;[32] the article itself also became a meme where people photoshopped examples of deep-fried and surreal memes onto the article to make fun of the point of the article and the abstraction of meme culture.[33]

Pepe memes

Matt Furie's cartoon character Pepe the Frog became an Internet meme when its popularity steadily grew across Myspace, Gaia Online and 4chan in 2008. By 2015, it had become one of the most popular memes used on 4chan and Tumblr.[34] Different types of Pepe include "Sad Frog", "Smug Frog", and "Angry Pepe". Since 2014, "Rare Pepes" have been posted on the (satirical) "meme market" as if they were trading cards.[35][36][37] During the 2016 United States presidential election, Pepe became associated with racism, the alt-right, and support for Donald Trump.[38] Shortly following this, Pepe was designated as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League, though not every Pepe meme is classified as one.[39]

Short-form video

After the success of the application Vine, a format of memes emerged was created in the form of short videos and scripted sketches.[40] Vine, in spite of its closure in early 2017, has still retained relevance through uploads of viral vines in compilations onto other sharing social media sites such as Twitter and YouTube.[41] Since Vine's shutdown, the service TikTok has been described as a better version of Vine and many comparisons have been made between the two platforms;[42] also based on the upload of short-form videos, TikTok, however, allows videos and memes up to a minute in length rather than six seconds.[43]

Meme market

A satirical subculture on the kind of talks and stocks found normally on Wall Street, in September 2016 a form of currency involving memes was created. Originally started on Reddit as r/MemeEconomy, started as a place where people only would only jokingly "buy" or "sell" shares in a meme to indicate what the general populace's thought on a meme's popularity was. Later the project was expanded on by Brandon Wink and Ron Vaisman who created their own website, NASDANQ, to delve deeper into this virtual market. Assigning virtual currency to users of NASDANQ, they allow people to actually buy and sell shares of meme stock. It is currently not for profit and instead considered a social experiment to see how people assign value to commonplace and otherwise valueless things.[44]


Public relations, advertising, and marketing professionals have embraced Internet memes as a form of viral marketing and guerrilla marketing to create marketing "buzz" for their product or service. The practice of using memes to market products or services is known as memetic marketing.[45] Internet memes are seen as cost-effective, and because they are a (sometimes self-conscious) fad, they are therefore used as a way to create an image of awareness or trendiness. To this end, businesses have taken to attempting two methods of using memes to increase publicity and sales of their company; either creating a meme or attempting to adapt or perpetuate an existing one.[46]

Marketers, for example, use Internet memes to create interest in films that would otherwise not generate positive publicity among critics. The 2006 film Snakes on a Plane generated much publicity via this method.[47] Used in the context of public relations, the term would be more of an advertising buzzword than a proper Internet meme, although there is still an implication that the interest in the content is for purposes of trivia, ephemera, or frivolity rather than straightforward advertising and news.

Examples of memetic marketing include the FreeCreditReport.com singing ad campaign,[48] the "Nope, Chuck Testa" meme from an advertisement for taxidermist Chuck Testa, Wilford Brimley saying "Diabeetus" from Liberty Medical[49] and the Dumb Ways to Die public announcement ad campaign by Metro Trains Melbourne.

The eligibility of any memes to get copyright protection would depend on the copyright law of the country in which such protection is sought. Some of the most popular formats of memes are cinematographic stills, personal or stock photographs, rage comics, and illustrations meant to be a meme.[50] In a cinematographic still, part of the entire end product is taken out of context and presented solely for its face value. The still is generally accompanied by a superimposed text of which conveys a distinctive idea or comment, such as the Boromir meme[51] or Gru's Plan.[52]

Other memes are created based on online phenomena or individually-created content. Photographs of people or animals, especially stock photos, can be turned into memes by superimposing text, often to depict an emotion such as in the Distracted Boyfriend and Overly Attached Girlfriend memes.[53] Rage comics are a subcategory of memes which depict a series of human emotions and conclude with a satirical punchline.[54] The sources for these memes often come from webcomics. Other memes are purely viral sensations such as in Keyboard Cat and Bongo Cat.[55]

United States

Under United States copyright law, a creation receives copyright protection if it satisfies four conditions under 17 U.S.C. § 102.[56] For a meme to get copyright protection, it would have to satisfy four conditions:

  1. It falls under one of the categories of work which is protected under the law

  2. It is an "expression"

  3. It has a modest amount of creativity

  4. It is "fixed".[57]

17 U.S.C. § 102 enumerates the subject matter over which copyright could be enjoyed namely, literary work, musical work; dramatic work; pictorial; graphical and cultural works; motion pictures, etc. Broadly memes could fall under any of the heads of pictorial, graphical or motion picture.[58]

In copyright law, ideas cannot get copyright protection but the expression of an idea can be protected. This is fundamental to copyright law. This means that the form and manner in which an idea is expressed is protected not the idea itself. This was given in the case of Baker v. Selden. Since a meme is essentially a comment, satire, ridicule or expression of an emotion it constitutes the expression of an idea.

For the meme to successfully claim protection, it would have to show that it is original work of the author and has a modest amount of creativity, since the United States has a low threshold for what constitutes creativity[59]. Memes are comments about the popular culture or social ideas and therefore the use of the text would have some amount of creativity.

17 U.S.C. § 101[60] requires the work to be 'fixed' which means that its "embodiment in a copy or phonorecord is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory nature". The medium here could be a book, musical recording, video and has also been widened to include publication on the Internet.


Under Section 2(c)[61] of the Indian Copyright Act, 1957, a meme could be classified as an 'artistic work' which states that an artistic work includes painting, sculpture, drawing (including a diagram, map, chart or plan), an engraving or a photograph, whether or not any such work possesses artistic quality.[57] The section uses the phrase "whether or not possessing artistic quality", the memes that are rage comics or those such as Keyboard Cat would enjoy protection as they are original creations in the form a painting, drawing, photograph or short video clip, despite not having artistic quality.[62] Memes that made from cinematograph still or photographs, the original image in the background for the meme would also be protected as the picture or the still from the series/movie is an 'artistic work'.[63] These meme are a modification of that already existing artistic work with some little amount of creativity and therefore, they would also enjoy copyright protection.

If it is found that the meme has made use of a copyrighted work, such as the movie still or photograph without due permission from the original owner, it would amount to copyright infringement. Rage comics and memes created for the sole purpose of becoming memes would normally be original works of the creator and therefore, the question of infringing other copyright work does not arise.[64] This does not mean that all memes made from movie still or photographs are infringing copyright. There are defences available for such use in various jurisdictions which could exempt the meme from attracting liability for the infringement.

Fair use in the United States

Fair use is a defence under 17 U.S.C. § 107[65] of the US Copyright Law which protects work that have made using other copyrighted works. The section provides that if a copyrighted work is reproduced for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship or research, it would not amount to infringement. Notably for memes, the use of the term "such as" in the section denotes that the list is not exhaustive but merely illustrative. Furthermore, the factors mentioned in the section are subjective in nature and the weight of each factor varies on a case to case basis.[66] All the factors have to be weighed together and an overall assessment is made whether the infringing work would qualify as fair use.

The four factors are:

  1. The purpose or character of use,

  2. The nature of the copyrighted work,

  3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used, and

  4. Effect on the market.

The purpose and character of the use involve how the original copyrighted work's purpose differs from the meme's purpose, as well as commercial uses of products that use copyrighted material. In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. the court introduced the concept of transformation which goes into the inquiry whether the infringing work altered the original with a new expression, meaning or expression or merely superseded or supplanted the original work. Memes are transformative in nature as they have no relation to the original work and the motive behind the communication of the meme is personal, in terms of disseminating humour to the public. Such memes being transformative would be covered by fair use.[66] However, copying memes that are made for the sole purpose of being memes would not enjoy this protection as there is no transformation- the copying has the same purpose as original meme which is communicate humorous anecdotes.[67]

Purpose and character of use weighs in against memes which have been used for commercial purposes because then the work has not been created for the communication of humour but for economic gain. For example, Grumpy Cat won $710,001 in a copyright lawsuit against the beverage company Grenade which used the Grumpy Cat image on its roasted coffee line and t-shirts.[68]

The nature of the copyrighted work weighs asks what the differences between the meme and the other material are. This factor applies to many types of memes because the original work is an artistic creation that has been published and thus the latter enjoys protection under copyright which the memes are violating. However, as memes are transformative, this factor does not have a lot weight.[64]

The amount and substantiality of the portion used tests not only the quantity of the work copied but the quality that is copied as well.[69] Harper & Row v. Nation Enterprises clarified this position. For cinematograph still, only a small portion of the entire film is copied whereas for rage comics and personal photographs, the entire portion has been used to create the meme. Despite this, all categories of memes would be considered to be falling under fair use because the text that is added to those images adds value, without which it would just be picture.[66] Moreover, the heart of the work is not affected because the still/picture is taken out of context and portrays something entirely different from what the image originally wanted to depict.[70]

Lastly, the effect on the market offers court analysis on whether the meme would cause harm to the actual market of the original copyright work and also the harm it could cause to the potential market.[71] The target audience for the original work and meme is entirely different as the latter is taken out of the context of the original and created for the use and dissemination on social media.[64] Rage comics and memes created for the purpose of being memes are an exception to this because the target audience for both is the same and copied work could infringe on the potential market of the original. Warner Brothers was sued for infringing the Nyan Cat meme by using it its game Scribblenauts.[72]

Fair dealing in India

Any distribution of a work which has a copyright, wholly or partly, would constitute an infringing copy under Section 2(m)(i)[73] of the Copyright Act, 1957. India follows a Fair Dealing approach as an exception to copyright infringement under Section 52(1)(a)[74] for the purposes of private or personal use, criticism or review. The analysis requires three steps: the amount and substantiality of dealing, the purpose of copying, and the effect on potential markets.

The amount of sustainability of dealing asks about how much of the original work is used in the meme, or how the meme transforms the original content. A meme makes use to existing copyright work whether it is a cinematograph still, rage comic, personal photograph or a meme made for the purpose of being a meme. However, since a meme is made for comedic purposes, taken out of context of the original work, they are transforming the work and creating a new work[57]

The purpose of copying factors in the purpose of the meme compared to the purpose of the original work. Under Section 52(1)(a)[75] the purpose is restricted to criticism or review. A meme, as long as it is a parody or a criticism of the original work would be protected under the exception but once an element of commercialisation comes in, they would no longer be exempted and because the purpose no longer falls under the those mentioned in the section .[62] When the Indian comedic group, All India Bakchod (AIB) parodied Game of Thrones through a series of memes, the primary purpose was to advertise products of companies that have endorsed the group and it would not be fair dealing.[67]

Memes generally do not have an effect on the potential market for a work. There must be no intention on part of the infringer to compete with the original owner of the work and derive profits from it.[76] Since memes are generally meant for comedic value and have no intention to supplant the market of the original creator, they would be squarely fall within the ambit of this section.[62]

See also

  • Cliché

  • List of Internet phenomena

  • Memetics

  • Remix culture


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