What makes a meme go viral?

16 min readJan 22, 2018


Figure 1. Caveman SpongeBob meme. Smosh.

Maybe you’ve giggled at a captioned photo of Kermit vs. Evil Kermit that popped up on your Facebook timeline the other day. Perhaps you’ve even seen one of Caveman Spongebob (see Figure 1) or Confused Mr. Krabs, and the SpongeBob fan in you had a laugh. These are all examples of memes–the phenomena that have flooded the Internet on sites such as Twitter, Reddit, and 4chan. A simple comparison search on Google Trends reveals that ever since 2011, “Jesus” was the most searched term on Google until 2016, when “meme” surpassed it. Even online communities consisting of thousands of members have emerged surrounding memes. Meme culture is pervading our generation. However, not all memes that are made are destined to go viral. What do all successful memes have in common? Even though they are all unique, popular memes tend to follow similar patterns in the characteristics they possess and the effects that they have on their audiences. In order for a meme to have the potential to go viral, it must include at least a few of the traits of spreadable media, which may include humor, simplicity, and understandability. If successful, a meme will also have some functionality, whether it be to make a joke, serve as a coping mechanism, provide social commentary, spread awareness, advocate a cause, or communicate a sentiment. This is what all viral memes have in common, and the fulfillment of these specific criteria can predict the success of a certain meme. A close analysis of one viral meme demonstrates that these criteria hold true.

On The Origin of Memes

The term “meme” was originally coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene. He defines a meme as a cultural unit of transmission, typically of behaviors or ideas, that, like genes, will be passed from person to person (Shifman 177). The etymology of the word “meme” takes the Greek root mim-, which refers to mimes and mimicry. Fittingly, memes are characteristically spread and mimicked across populations. These “contagious patterns of ‘cultural information’ get passed from mind to mind and directly generate and shape the mindsets and significant forms of behavior and actions of a social group” (Lankshear and Knobel 199). These memes are generally intangible, but spread throughout society like a pathogen, influencing the way people think and act. People can learn anything from stories to behaviors from those around them, and through them, the meme will continue propagating. From both definitions, we can extract examples of memes to include melodies, fashions, abstract beliefs, and even something as simple as the act of building a fire. These memes can all spread from person to person and can be mutated as they are imitated. Like genes, only the memes that are most successfully suited to their sociocultural environment will be selected in competition and then passed on (Shifman 177). Many memes are in competition for attention, so the ones that aren’t spread and embraced by people will eventually fade into oblivion.

The Modern Definition

In the age of the Internet, the term “meme” has taken on a new definition. Memes are described as cultural units, most often photos with captioned text on the top and bottom, that are usually created with awareness of each other and circulated, imitated, and transformed by users all over the Internet (Shifman 177). Like Dawkins’ memes, Internet memes can spread throughout cultures and societies and become widely imitated and mutated by anyone with the resources available. Nowadays, memes spread if they’re funny rather than strictly useful, as behavioral memes usually did. Similarly, only memes that are well-suited to their audiences will go viral, or at least become popular and widespread (meaning it may reach fame within a certain community, but never a nationwide or global scale), while others remain unknown and irrelevant.

Figure 2. Arthur’s clenched fist meme. Dazed Digital.

People create memes with awareness of the original version that has previously gone viral, merely updating the text over it to pertain to different situations. An example of a recently popular meme is the one that depicts the cartoon character Arthur’s clenched fist, which is used in memes where the author is appealing to a group that feels strongly about a certain topic and feels irked by something in particular, but doesn’t speak up (see Figure 2). Viewers know Arthur to be a kind, harmless aardvark, yet in this meme, he embodies strong, bottled-up frustration. People found this particular meme appealing, and thus variations sprung up all of the Internet. Themes for this meme range from annoyance over not getting a reply to a text message to anger when one who is hungry offers a friend some of their food just to be polite, but the friend actually takes some.

A meme typically takes the original memetic photo and overlays new text over it. However, sometimes creators may choose to change up the original photo. Shifman calls these phenomena “mimicry and remix,” which are showcased in Figure 3, which is mimicking and remixing the viral YouTube video “Charlie Bit My Finger.” Remix is when you change up the original meme somehow, and mimicry is when you recreate it in a different way than it was originally presented. Software like Adobe Photoshop enables users to easily manipulate original meme photos and make them something more tailored to a specific audience.

Figure 3. Remix and mimicry of “Charlie Bit My Finger.” Memes in Digital Culture.

Like biological memes and genes, only the best Internet memes will come out triumphant from the natural selection and competition of the Internet community. If successful, a meme will be rewarded with grand reception from the online community.

What Success Really “Memes”

Success for an Internet meme has much to do with virality, the tendency for it to circulate widely and rapidly. Even if they don’t quite go viral and become Internet sensations, popular memes can rack up hundreds and even upwards of thousands of “likes,” retweets, or shares. Dawkins’ identified three key traits that all successful memes have in common, which can also be used to study Internet memes: copy fidelity, longevity, and fecundity (Lankshear and Knobel 201). Fidelity refers to the qualities of the meme that enable it to be “readily copied and passed from mind to mind relatively intact” (201). This just means that the specific qualities of a meme are more probable to stay the same given the technology readily available to save and update existing images. Fecundity refers to the rate at which a meme is copied and spread, or the number of copies of it made in a certain unit of time. The higher its fecundity, the more likely a meme is to capture robust, sustained attention and be more widely replicated and distributed (201). The Internet and software such as Photoshop enable memes to be produced in just a matter of minutes. Once a meme starts to become popular, it circulates through social networks at an exponential pace. Longevity regarding a meme just means how long its “lifespan” is. The longer a meme survives, the more it can be copied and passed on, assuming optimal conditions for its diffusion and innovation (202).

The successful meme, in order to diffuse, must spread from its individual creator to its intended audience. In fact, “a meme does not come into being unless people contribute by altering it, responding to it, and enacting it (Goriunova 55). Without all of the replications and spreading, a meme is merely a photo. Networks like Facebook and YouTube act as “express paths” in which content spread by one user can scale up to mass levels of viewership in mere hours (Shifman 18). A viral meme tends to have thousands of variations and a huge online presence on social media. If this aforementioned meme does happen to go viral, this means that it has diffused through society, or the Internet, and has been widely recreated. This meme will be visible everywhere, from Facebook to college professors’ lecture slides.

“What Makes Online Content Viral?” provides a more psychological approach to determining what makes media viral through the analysis of 7000 New York Times articles and the emotions they evoked. The results indicate that the most successful, or the content with the most derivatives, tended to be ones that provoked high-arousal emotions (Berger and Milkman 1). The Berger/Milkman study pertains to online newspaper articles rather than memes, but its ideas are still pertinent to any spreadable, viral media. Applied to Internet memes, high-arousal emotions can range from strong agreement and laughter to disagreement and anger. It makes sense that high-arousal emotions occur when a meme is both in accordance with a user’s beliefs and when it is not. If a user strongly agrees with a meme, she might share it to reinforce her ideals. If she strongly disagrees with it, she may share it to express her anger over the matter. For example, a college student might love a meme that ridicules his rival school, but be angered at a meme that makes fun of a particular aspect of his school. Both possess the potential to cause him to interact with them as a user, by sharing it, commenting on it, or retaliating with his own meme.

However successful and long-lived a meme is, it will have a half-life and thus eventually die out: “[Memes] become popular, and then, taken as a whole, they are consumed and then tossed on the scrap-heap of history” (Mims 6). The lifetime and popularity of memes are graphed in Figure 4, which proves that even though the history of each meme may be different, it is predictable that interest will slowly dissipate (7). So, now that the picture of a successful meme has been constructed, one may start to wonder what goes into the making of one.

Figure 4. The half-life of a meme. Mims, the Atlantic

What Makes a Meme Successful?

“What makes a meme successful?” is a complex question with a wide scope of answers. “Y U no Go Viral: The Emerging Science of Memes” claims that there is no definitive answer: “no one has yet to rigorously demonstrate…why any particular type of content goes viral. This sort of prognostication remains an art rather than a science” (Mims 7). However, there is, in fact, some science behind constructing a good meme.

A good, viral meme is one made with kairos in mind, meaning it is susceptible to timing and location. This means that a meme’s “relevance to current events, its relation to extant successful memes, and the interests and values of the people using the spaces in which the meme is unleashed” all affect people’s “propensity to be infected by it” (Lankshear and Knobel 202). If a meme includes outdated or irrelevant content, users will be repelled. A good meme will also cross-reference a host of popular events, movies, and artifacts in order to tap into and affinity space of its ingroup (213). When the meme includes pop culture references and current events that are interesting and relevant to people, they will be more inclined to interact with it and enjoy it. For example, in the meme in Figure 1, viewers may recognize SpongeBob’s character and be more intrigued by it, because they already know who SpongeBob is and what his personality is like.

A successful meme will also make a viewer feel socially validated. Social validation is the “tendency for individuals to look to others to see what others are doing to determine if a behavior is normative and appropriate” (Guadagno et al. para 8). A good meme will use social validation to create a sense of collective identity. For instance, take a meme depicting someone feeling clueless during an exam: someone seeing this meme may feel relieved that he is not the only one at a his school that finds exams extremely difficult. Even though everyone may seem to be comfortable with the exam on the outside, when he sees this meme being liked and propagated, he feels a sense of collective identity and frustration with people in the same boat, and realizes that he is not the only one–his experience is shared.

Finally, humor is vital to any viral meme, whether it be juxtaposition, incongruity, or focus on ordinary people (Shifman 76–78). The main purpose of memes is to make viewers laugh. Overall, a meme is largely successful when it is simple, funny, and appeals to a large audience. Discerning these qualities in a meme is all up to the ingroup that the meme was created to appeal to. Logically, whenever the most people can understand, appreciate, and relate to a meme’s humor, the more popular it will become. They will share it with their networks, and the meme will spread like wildfire.

What a Good Meme Can Do for Us:

In addition to being easy to create, memes also have myriad applications: they can serve as coping mechanisms, provide social commentary and foster awareness about current events, and provide us with an understandable language with which we can communicate our struggles and opinions.

Memes oftentimes act as agents of awareness concerning current events: “any major public event in the past few years–from a royal wedding to the death of a mega-terrorist–involves a stream of Internet memes” (Attardo 391). Viewing popular memes allows people, especially those who don’t read the newspaper, watch the news on television, or frequent news sites, to become aware of what is going on in the world.

In addition to increasing awareness about current issues, memes often serve as coping mechanisms. For the year 2016, notorious for its insane amount of celebrity deaths, political turmoil, and general unpleasantness, memes helped people deal with it all. Memes aren’t “just a tool for expressing our collective Internet culture psyche, they’ve also been a means of expressing ourselves, forming communities,…and much, much more” (Allwood 1). Memes put humor into situations that are unfortunate. By making light of such difficult situations, these Internet photos have helped individuals and communities alike cope with hardship.

Figure 5. Forever Alone character. Bookmarkz.

On an individual level, memes constitute shared spheres of cultural knowledge, meaning that they can be used appropriately as a universal language that communicates complex ideas or feelings with just a short phrase and image (Shifman 173). For example, if someone had gone on a bad date, instead of saying that they feel disappointed and lonely, they can just paste the forever alone character (see Figure 5), and people will understand what they mean and empathize with them. In this sense, memes have become their own vernacular of sorts: they act like a dialect that people, typically young adults, use to communicate with each other.

Following the Pattern: Analyzing a Successful Meme

Figure 6. Conceited Reaction meme. Knowyourmeme.

A close analysis of the “Conceited Reaction” meme (see Figure 6) and the responses it prompted from college freshmen provide empirical evidence that successful memes do incorporate certain methods, and viewers do look for and recognize these factors when judging the quality of a meme.

This specific meme stemmed from a screenshot of a YouTube video of NYC rapper Conceited performing in a rap battle. The ridiculous and expressive face he is making in this specific screenshot makes this photo so funny and relatable. Its fame came from one Twitter user’s October 2016 tweet (“Know Your Meme” 2). Since then, the “Conceited Reaction” meme has been used to depict scenarios where one feels s/he can defy what is being said. The zoomed in, freeze-framed shot of his pursed lips depicts disapproval and skepticism, seemingly saying “I’m not so sure about that.” This meme quickly became sensational, and its many remixed photos and reproductions can attest to that.

Figure 7. Different versions of Conceited Reaction. Knowyourmeme.

In Figure 6, he represents the audience of students, most likely in high school or college, who are prone to procrastination and want to prove to their teachers that they can, in fact, finish a big assignment at the last minute.

Depending on the caption it is paired with, the meme can appeal to different groups of people with shared sentiments and opinions on certain subject matters. Different captions and remixes range from ones that appeal to online shoppers to coffee drinkers (see Figure 7). Mimicry is essential to any meme, and memes with many replications are in turn the ones that are more popular (Goriunova 55). These three variations are only a tiny percentage of all of the different ones made of Conceited Reaction, pointing to its success as a meme.

In a poll of 20 Stanford freshmen, 70% have seen Conceited Reaction somewhere before, and 60% were able to relate to the specific variation in Figure 6. When asked what they thought made this meme successful, responses included: its relatability, simplicity, and understandability, its playing off of a well known memetic archetype, its universality, the expressiveness of Conceited’s face, and its close-up nature. These align with the aforementioned traits of successful memes: simplicity, understandability, and relatability. Simple memes are easy to understand, and when people understand and relate to a certain meme, they will be more likely to share it. All of the online sharing that took place accounts for the majority of pollees who have seen it before. Even if someone is not directly tagged in a meme, one of their Facebook friends may have been, and thus it would appear in their newsfeed.

According to respondents, a good meme must be short, witty, relatable, and unique.

According to respondents, a good meme must be short, witty, relatable, and unique. One respondent went further into saying that he looks for a layer of pop culture when judging memes, which bolsters the claim made in Lankshear and Knobel (2007) that intertextuality enhances a meme’s success (213). In this specific case, intertextuality played a role for those who know who Conceited is. One pollee explained how s/he did not know who Conceited was, but if s/he did, it may have been funnier for him/her.

Although this poll surveyed a small sample size, it is imperative to note that when asked if memes are a legitimate form of communication, all responded “yes.” Reasons for this included: “all communication boils down to certain ‘patterns’ in speech, I don’t see why memes (which reflect a truth about life or add to a conversation) are any different” and “memes are unique because each picture carries its own nuanced context, connotation, and expectation, so in a way, they can act as a form of communication much more effective than words, sharing ideas, emotions, and feelings in a way that would be fairly difficult using only words.” Following these responses, it can be seen that real meme perusers do indeed view memes as a language of its own. Although they are good at expressing shared emotions and thoughts very quickly and seemingly simply, people not in the target audience of a meme or who might not have experience with Internet meme language/popular slang may not understand it, as one response notes: “[memes] convey ideas quickly and easily, but only if someone understands the context and “language” of meme culture.”

This goes to show how memes can be seen more as a dialect for younger, Internet-savvy folks than a universal language, even though they are understandable to a large audience. Internet memes don’t appeal to everyone alike, and certain memes may be confusing to people not in their intended audiences. Even in a sample of college students, who likely have experience with procrastination and years of assignment deadlines, 80% found the Conceited Reaction meme to be very understandable, while the other 20% didn’t find it so much so, perhaps due to the fact that they were unable to fully read Conceited’s facial expression. However, the majority of the pollees described this meme as understandable and relatable, which can attest to its success.

Figure 8. Google Trends search of Conceited Reaction meme. Google Trends.

A simple search of Google Trends shows that interest peaked shortly after the first Conceited Reaction meme was shared in October 2016. As time went on, the curve decreased at a steady rate, proving the point in Mims (2013) that all popular memes have a half-life and eventually die out. As the graph shows, the Conceited Reaction meme seems to be approaching its archaism.

The sharp spike in interest also proves what Lankshear and Knobel (2007) mentions about fecundity–the number of copies made in a certain time. In this case, in almost exactly one month, the meme’s popularity spiked from 0 interest to maximum interest (see Figure 8). Since it was so popular, the number of replications likely peaked during this time, agreeing with the notion that high fecundity leads to the capture of robust and widespread attention (Lankshear and Knobel 201).


Overall, memes serve a wide variety of purposes, even though they are so inherently simple. They are even seen by some as a language of their own. Crafting a good meme is part art and part science. While Mims (2013) may argue that it is purely an art and that a meme’s success cannot be foreseen, a certain formula can be applied to make a meme more likely to spread widely and rapidly. Though a meme’s potential to go viral cannot be completely predicted, analyzing popular memes leads to the hypothesis that there is a science behind predicting some of it: all successful memes contain at least some of the aforementioned characteristics of spreadable media. Therefore, if a meme appeals to a large group and possesses traits such as humor, simplicity, understandability, and relevance, it is more likely to be deemed shareable and consequently, go viral. The versatility of memes is completely unparalleled as a language, as they have effects in the social, cultural, psychological, and political realms. If those who want their memes to reach fame learn about what factors make memes go viral, they will increase their chances of reaching success as creators. More able to make successful memes, these creators will be able to speak with a voice that has the power to reach and influence Internet users all over the world in whichever way they may choose to.




Just a girl trying to figure it all out. I'm interested in psychology, music, and design (fashion, architecture, interiors).