The Science of Memes

How do they become famous? How do they spread so quickly? And how do they become so popular?


“The Crying Jordan”

If you’re reading this article, you most certainly know what an Internet meme is. If you don’t, I can explain. An “internet meme” is a concept, or idea, that spreads from one person to another, via the Internet. It could, in definition, be anything from an e-mail to a video file, but the most common form of a meme is a funny picture of a person or animal, usually with a funny/witty caption. A meme could also be a picture (most likely hand drawn) of a person or an expression. It could be original, or it could be a form of imitation/mockery. Within the Internet, it could be a matter of hours before a meme hits fame, depending on what it is and how popular it is with the public. Believe it or not, scientists are just now figuring out how memes are born, which ones might die out, why they lose popularity/die out, and which ones might go viral first.

The best way to really understand how memes work is by thinking about them like a virus. The memes can spread, or reproduce, by coming in contact with different people, who then share it with different people, and so on. The meme can mutate, just like a virus, by someone recreating it in a different way. For example, the “Forever Alone” meme has been captioned in thousands of different ways. That would be considered a ‘mutation’ for the meme each time it is re-captioned by a new person.


“That’d be great…” A character in the movie, “Office Space,” Bill Lundbergh took on new life as a meme.

There has been some serious time devoted to researching memes. One student from Harvard University, Michele Coscia, put an immense amount of work and research into finding out how memes spread and which ones are the most popular. He then put them into a “family tree” like flow chart, with each branch telling how popular that subsection of meme is, or how popular it might become. Coscia, found out that many memes that achieve above-average popularity at some point in the beginning of their ‘life’ are normally the memes that fail quicker than others. According to his research, memes that are shared over time at a slower rate eventually become more popular.


“Forever Alone”

Coscia also found out another key factor in the popularity of a meme in the long run. In order for one meme to become popular, another must disappear, and cease to be popular or famous. The many kinds of memes means that there are nearly limitless combinations when pairing two of them together. But some combinations, says Michele Coscia, just fit together better than others. Meme pairs that become popular together usually agree or disagree with the each other in some way. Usually, memes that disagree with each other tend to become more popular than the memes that agree with each other. Since there are so many combinations and types of memes, it could be said that memes have their own genres, just like books or movies do. It might vary from time to time, depending on the types of memes, but almost every meme can be put into one or more categories, which can allow them to be classified.


An early meme, the “I can has cheezburger?” cat.

The final key element for the science behind memes is who comes into contact with them. This can determine how likely a meme is to spread. For example, if someone found a cat meme, and that person happens to like cats, they would be more likely to share it than a person who prefers dogs. In order for a meme to become popular, it has to reach a group of people who will be likely to share it and continue the spread.

There is not yet any explanation as to why memes go viral. We only have, as of right now, an explanation as to how they can spread, and which ones will become the most popular. The process of ‘going viral’ is still a huge mystery. It contains too many variables for it to be tested, and it depends on the population of the viewers as a whole. Memes may be simple, but behind them is some truly amazing science.


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