They are today’s indisputable shrine to our cuddly overlord, the cat. Meow! You embed them in your text messages, your tweets, your Facebook posts, your Instagram stories. A shorthand for our daily feels, they’re also unifying symbols and rallying cries for a common cause. We’re talking about internet memes. They’re everywhere, on- and offline. And they’re shaping and reflecting our pop culture and politics in real time.
In her book Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power, technologist, writer, and artist An Xiao Mina defines them as “a piece of online media that is shared and remixed over time within a community.” How do they work? How do they get shared and remixed? Mina goes on further to say:
Think of a funny picture of a cat being held up by its front legs, so it stretches out and looks quite long. (This is a real meme called Longcat, who is indeed long.) Now imagine if someone else does the same thing with their cat. And someone else does too. And they share it with each other, and then someone else stitches them all together in Photoshop to create a team of three long cats. This is meme culture. Memes can be silly they can be harmless, they can be destructive, they can be extremely serious, and they can be all these things at the same time. A meme is an invitation: “You can do this too.” And in both Ferguson and Hong Kong, during the inauguration and during the Women’s March, memes spread across borders and territories to involve much larger groups of people acting in solidarity than might previously have been possible.
The term “meme” comes from Richard Dawkins, who coined the term in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. A meme is a unit of culture that’s spread like biological genes. A human cultural practice, such as “tying one’s hair in a ponytail versus tying it in intricate braids, wearing watches versus wearing extensive bangles, or holding racist views,” is passed down again and again, from generation to generation. Internet memes are the digital variety.
For better and for worse, memes can be anything we want them to be. There are several kinds we can make, share, and remix to our heart’s content. How do we know which one we’re using? Here’s Mina’s breakdown of each type from her book, with an example. You’ve probably seen all, if not most of them.
Image Memes and Image Macros
When someone shares a picture of a llama photoshopped onto a car, they are sharing an image meme. Many internet platforms encourage photo embeds, because human beings are visual creatures, and so image memes tend to do particularly well. Image memes can have text on them, and in those cases they’re called image macro memes. The popular meme format in the West, of creating an image and adding text above and below it to make a statement, is a good example of an image macro.
They are, technologically, the easiest to create, and they’re most familiar in the Western context as hashtag memes, like #BlackLivesMatter and #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.
Video memes are the most technologically and creatively demanding to create, but often also the most virally popular. Length doesn’t matter so much—some video memes can be quite long, while others can last just a second or two.
GIF memes can be considered a subgenre of video memes. GIFs operate effectively under lower bandwidth conditions and, through repetition, often reinforce a message or make a humorous statement.
[To evade censorship, activists in China critiqued their government with grass mud horse pictures online.] When the grass mud horse leapt from the screen and into phone stickers and plush toys, it went from a purely digital meme to a physical one. Not all these toys were actual grass mud horses; indeed, many people just repurposed existing plush dolls of llamas to make a statement. Regardless, the ability to remix or make a physical object to produce a memetic statement is quite common. Thanks to smartphone cameras, anything done in the physical world can quickly enter the digital world, and thanks to rapid production cycles, anything made popular on the internet can quickly become a physical product disseminated through online stores.
In 2011, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei posted a photo of himself jumping naked while holding a grass mud horse to cover his crotch. When he did, he was participating in a performative meme, using his body to generate a version of the meme circulating on the Chinese web at the time. The joke was once again a pun, this time with an even more explicit political message: “The grass mud horse covers the center”—caonima dang zhongyang (草泥马挡中央)—sounds a lot like “fuck your mother, Central Party Committee.” This performative meme took aim at one of the most powerful institutions in China, and it asked citizens to embody their political stance through performance.
Selfie memes are a common subgenre of performative memes that deserve special mention. When people post photos of themselves cuddling a grass mud horse, they are posting selfie memes. Thanks to the advent of both front-facing cameras on smartphones and social networks like Instagram and WeChat that encourage photo sharing, selfies have swept the digital world. As with “Coca-Cola” and “taxi,” “selfie” is a word that rarely requires translation in other languages.