Technically, a meme is just a cultural idea that gets exponentially transferred from person to person. However, since more than 1.7 billion people in the world have access to the worldwide web, Internet memes have become their own genre of meme. Before the Internet, pictures had to be taken on a camera, which would spend a couple days developing the pictures in a darkroom, and then one copy of each picture was available to look at. Since the Internet, pictures and videos have become more easily spread, and also used as blank slates for new memes. This has been the most influential change since the coining of the term “meme.” Now, we can define an Internet meme as an image, recreation, catchphrase, or other piece of media that circulates throughout the population as different people mimic its form. As this definition of a meme is very broad, it covers a lot of ground. The Internet has allowed the passing along of memes to be easier and quicker than ever before. On top of more people being able to access the Internet, consumption and creation of Internet memes have skyrocketed with the launch of YouTube in 2005. According to the collaborators of “Networked Cultural Diffusion and Creation on YouTube,” video memes most often involved ordinary males, emphasize humor and playful catchphrases, and portray simple storylines that can easily be mimicked. Some of the first "memes" were videos of people lying facedown in public places, or "planking." As many found this activity humorous, it spread nation-wide in what felt like overnight. Hundreds of people were finding new and different places where they could plank, each video building on the last. People were planking in stores, park benches, and any other public surface they could balance themselves on. While this activity only became widespread when it hit the Internet, it is difficult to tell what the origins are. However, according to Wikipedia, it hit the Internet when schoolboys started a Facebook page of pictures of themselves and their friends planking. According to the creators of the Facebook page, Gary Clarkson and Christian Langdon of Taunton, England, they were just bored. What is key about a meme is that it has to reach mass recognition, as planking did. However, as memes often do, the craze died out almost as soon as it arrived.
Memes are a simple idea broadened by the Internet. Whenever we are apart of an online community, we see memes constantly—almost unconsciously. There are several components of a meme that it requires to exist. The first of these is the memetic engineer. This is the actual creator of an original meme. Next, there is the hook. The hook refers to the ingredient of the meme that draws the viewer in, striking an interest. Quite the opposite of the hook, we then have the bait. The bait is the intended result of the meme. In most examples of Internet memes, this could just mean massive duplication and consumption. There is also the vector, which refers to the medium that presents the meme to the viewer. Then, there is the host. The host is the carrier that sent the meme in the first place. If you view a meme that someone sent to you through text message, the vector would be the physical text, while the host would be the text deliverer. Then, there must be a memotype. This is the actual expression of a meme. The sociotype is the way the meme is understood within a particular culture or social context.
Memes truly reflect culture, as any normal person with access to a computer can make or view them. When a meme becomes massively produced and spread, it is because it is easily relatable to our population. In fact, “According to a 2005 study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life project [Lenhardt & Madden, 2005], more than one-half of all American teens—and 57 percent of teens who use the Internet—could be considered media creators,” (Jenkins 2006). Memes encourage this participatory culture that new generations are becoming apart of and integrating themselves into on the Internet. In “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” Henry Jenkins writes about this phenomenon. He states: “Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement,” (Jenkins 2006). While memes must involve the efforts of a community, they fall under this definition. In his article, Jenkins speaks about several forms of participatory culture. Memes fit under several of these forms. For example, one of the forms of participatory culture is affiliation. While memes are created and shared through Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, affiliation to one of these Internet communities is necessary to stay updated on different memes. Therefore, if you know of a certain meme, it is because you are a member of one of these websites. The next form of participatory culture is expression. This refers to producing new and creative forms through the Internet. Memes are a comedic example of this. Every time someone creates a new meme, whether it is a new illustration or different words posted over a previous meme, it is inventive and expressive. The last form of participatory culture that memes fall under is circulation. In fact, circulation is in the very definition of memes, as we have previously stated. In order for a meme to be a meme, it needs to be massively publicized and propagated.
Memes also encourage new social skills taught by participatory culture. Some of these skills include the ability to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving, adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation, meaningfully sample and remix different forms of media, interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities, combine knowledge and collaborate with others towards a common goal, follow the stream of stories and information across multiple forms of media, and travel across several diverse internet communities while respecting others’ content and perspectives. Memes encourage social skills on the Internet, because creating, viewing, or mimicking a meme involves communication, an intelligent idea reflective of our culture, and innovation. It also doesn’t hurt that they’re hilarious.
Though memes are widespread across the nation, assuming many different authors, there are little copyright issues when it comes to creating a new version of the same meme. Memes are mostly made for comedic purposes, and are often posted on websites like Reddit, where the creator is often anonymous. Having said this, there are still some discrepancies due to the economic value recently acquired by memes. They could be used as advertisements to promote something, or as tools to vilify something. However, due to the Fair Use Defense, meme makers are protected due to the fact that parodies are natural tools when providing commentary or criticism on a subject.
Memes are one of the first Internet phenomenons to blur the line between content consumption and creation. Often used is the term “produsage,” which suggests that many users not only view memes as they scroll down their newsfeeds, but actively create them as well. Given that memes are more influential in social media than most other things, it is important to consider who is creating and circulating these memes. There are three types of meme creation and diffusion in media: sources, authorities, and hubs. A “source” is considered the original video, illustration, or photo. For example, Gary Clarkson and Christian Langdon’s very first “plank” video uploaded to the Internet would be a source. “Authorities” refer to established media organizations who have proficiency in a topic. Authorities will collect and filter original sources, amplifying the reach of an original source. “Hubs” refer to the population of consumers who watch the original source, and then remix it to create their own copy, which they then redistribute on the Internet. These three actors serve to put a meme through its lifespan: emerging as a meme, duplication, and eventually declining.
While memes can be seen as a good thing, as they encourage a mass public discussion and exchange of ideas, they can also be detrimental. The Internet is a big place, and therefore there is almost nothing protecting something from becoming perverse, offensive, or inappropriate. While memes are created for comedic relief, some people’s ideas of comedy are different than others. In an age where people are finally becoming sensitive to sexism, racism, and being social conscious, memes have either reflected these principles or antagonized them. As these memes spread rapidly, it is impossible to control who consumes them or spreads them. In this way, an insensitive meme can circulate massively, and will offend someone almost every time. This makes the Internet harmful, and it is sad to think it is never a safe place. Some memes are also perverse, and the amount of people who duplicate them is shocking. Memes can also be in the form of viruses. With so many Internet users, however, it is impossible to stop those who want to share offensive and perverse memes.