Life Cycle of a Meme

By Kyle Yalch

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What is a "Meme"?

If you've ever used the internet, you've likely come across one of these humorous type of images. They're almost impossible to avoid, having a big presence on social media, internet forums and subculture, TV ads, and even some corporate entities.

While memes come in a variety of formats and have a wide range of purposes, most of them have a factor of comedy to them, aiming to make the viewer laugh, or at the very least chuckle. A lot of online communities make memes about the content of the community, say a specific game and its players for example.

Memes have been a staple of the internet since the late 2000s, and reside mostly on the web due to how easy it is to spread pictures, videos, information and all other types of digital media.

A clip from Rick Astley's hit video

We've seen a lot of different memes throughout the last decade.
How exactly do they come and go?

Memes are often created by people to add a sense of comedy to a picture or video of a subject, often with a funny caption that relates to the source material. Memes usually pertain to current events or subjects most people are familiar with, as a lot of memes are difficult to understand with no context at all.

A great example of a meme that isn't understood without context is the famous act of "Rick Rolling," which involves hiding the video from musician Rick Astley's hit song, "Never Gonna Give You Up" in a place where someone wouldn't expect. If you send your friend a link to what they expect to be news article, but the link instead takes them to Rick Astley's video, you have "Rick Rolled" them. Your friend would likely laugh at the fact they have been fooled, and may try to do the same to you when you least expect it.

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How do some memes get so popular, while others don't?

Since a lot of memes revolve around current events or widespread knowledge, they tend to stick around the time frame of the subject matter. A meme made with characters from this year's top TV show would be received and understood much better than a meme of an obscure show from the 1980s. Two of the major factors that make up a meme are context and its ability to be remixed.

What makes memes so unique are their ability to be remixed with a different context to appeal to a different group. If a meme can be used in a wide variety of contexts and still remain funny, it will likely be spread far and wide across the internet. Most memes that achieve a lot of popularity have no context originally contained within them, and have plenty of room for people to add their own context.

The following graph shows the popularity of some of the most popular memes over the last 13 years.

Popularity of Common Memes of the Last 13 Years

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Why are memes so humorous and widespread?

As stated earlier, memes rely on two big factors to get the attention of people: context and remixing. Unless you find humor in completely random and senseless things, memes will need a familiar idea, subject or concept attached to them to be understood.

The biggest component of a meme is its ability to be modified and augmented to fit a multitude of purposes. It gets people involved in making their own spin-offs of the source material, which leads to a widespread variety of media based off of the source, often referred to as a "format". Memes can have a variety of different meanings, and the more meanings a format can have while remaining humorous, the more popular it becomes. As more people notice the format and create content around it, it spreads even further.

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What happens after a meme loses popularity?

Eventually, people start to see a popular meme so often it gets boring, and the meme's popularity starts to decline. Once a meme falls out of the spotlight and fades away from constant usage, one of two things happen to it.

Outcome one - the meme stops being used almost completely, and is considered to be "dead." The only remaining uses of it vary completely from its original state, and those uses are widely regarded as unfunny and lame. "Harambe" is a great example of this. It rapidly rose in pouplarity, and as quickly as it came it disappeared.
Outcome two - the meme loses a lot of its popularity, but still "lives on" and circulates around smaller demographics, such as online communities, or simply isn't used as much as previously. The "Lenny Face," while not as mainstream as it once was, is still widely used in a variety of places on the internet and a lot of users will still recognize it.

However, memes aren't always one-hit wonders. Some will rise in popularity again after a resurgence of new takes on the format, such as "Doge" from the early 2010s era of memes. The meme has been considered "dead" for the past several years, as with most memes from that time frame, but has recently seen an increase in usage over the past year and a half with people creating a sort of lore based around the character and other variations of it. Other "dead memes" such as "Troll Face" and many others never gain traction again, and are used solely and rarely in an ironic or a "so unfunny it's funny" sense.

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