It can start with just about anything. A photograph, a quote in a television series, a drawing, a video … Somewhere on the Internet, someone adds a dose of humor, sometimes absurd, and the whole is widely distributed, modified again, amplified: a meme was born.
The word, inspired by ancient Greek, was coined by biologist and animal behaviorist Richard Dawkins in the 1970s. In his book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins postulates that, just as genes convey biological characteristics, there are cultural elements that are transmitted from one person to another and are, again like the genes, subject to mutations.
Dawkins’ definition is broad and can be applied to almost all productions of the human mind. With the development of the Web, the word acquires a more restricted meaning in everyday language: that of a cultural object, most often humorous, which spreads very quickly within an online community, each member of this community can reclaim the object and create its own version.
Recent example – and still under development: the flying bear. It all begins with a trivial fact: a bear ventures into the suburbs of Boulder, Colorado, and takes refuge in a tree. The police intervene and sleep the animal with a dart of tranquilizer, causing his fall. The photos of the fall of the bear, abundantly diffused in the Anglo-Saxon press, are quickly supplemented with legends more or less funny:
The overwhelming majority of memes are based on simple irony and rely on a comical situation, a funny drawing, a known joke, or making fun of a teenager in a ridiculous situation. But funny memes are also occasionally used to convey an opinion or a political message; and the Pepper spraying cop, the hijacking of a photograph of a police officer using tear gas against peaceful protesters during a sit-in of the Occupy movement.
If memes can appear and spread on different media, some community spaces are known for their strong production of various memes such as funny dog memes: the unmoderated 4chan image forum, and more particularly its sub-forum /b/, but also social aggregators. Memes have their own online encyclopedia, which traces the history of the most popular memes – and tries to explain the reasons for their success, even though no “recipe” seems to predict success. Or the failure of a meme.
To understand and follow the evolution of memes, an encyclopedia is indeed not useless. Many funny memes refer to something that is not well known to the general public and are intended for an audience that can understand the reference. And even when a meme is intended for a large audience, when a meme evolves, it often borrows elements from other previous memes – which makes them quickly incomprehensible to the uninitiated.
Of the hundreds of memes like funny cat memes that make their appearance each week, only a handful really goes to posterity. Originally created “by hand” in an image or video editor, the most popular get a place in semi-automatic editors, or created by Internet users.