A basic introduction to the wonderful world of online memes

i-can-has-cheezburgerIf you’re a big fan of social media (aren’t we all) then you’ll have come across the term meme a lot online, people are talking about them, creating them, making them and sharing them, but what are they?

So firstly let’s start with pronunciation, most tend to say meme like they’d say “team” (we do this), but we’ve also heard fairly intelligent people say mem, as in “mem”-ory, so take your pick (but actually just do what we do).

The term “meme” was first used by Richard Dawkins back in 1976 in a book called “The Selfish Gene” and it referred to “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” However, ask different people and you’ll get slightly different definitions. So do you see why the world of memes is so airy-fairy and exciting now?

When it comes to specifically online memes Dawkins’ definition still rings true, they’re pieces of cultural content that are passed around and copied. Simple, right? So how does this work in practice?

Well a meme can be anything that’s passed around, we mean pretty much anything, so that can include a link, a picture, a hashtag, even a spelling mistake (like “teh” instead of “the”). And in the same way it can take pretty much any form, it can be spread in pretty much any way, like via emails, Twitter, blogs, etc.

It’s hard to track down how certain memes were first created, because they’re often changed, amended, people create their own and they really evolve online. However, most of the time someone will make one based on a pop culture reference or event.

This all sounds interesting, but it’s hard to really explain until we show you, so here are some of the top memes out there right now and some of the best ones from the past few years:


lol-cats-exampleProbably one of the most popular memes is Lolcats, sometimes referred to as Icanhazcheeseburger too, and they involve a silly photo of a cat with often mis-spelled phrases around it that relate to the cat doing human things and having human feelings. They’re meant to be funny, silly and a bit ridiculous.







y-u-no-ringThe Y U NO? meme features a little man who’s believed to have come from a Japanese cartoon called Gantz’ Chapter 55: Naked King. He always asks questions in the format of “[main topic/noun] Y U NO [verb]?” and meme generator states that the first ever use of the Y U NO? meme came about on Tumblr with the phrase “I TXT YOU…Y U NO TXTBACK?”







rick-astleyA slightly different kind of meme, “rickrolling” is when you send someone a link that you pretend to be something else that’s really interesting and in actual fact it’s a link through to Rick Astley’s music video for “Never Gonna Give You Up” (which you can find here if you’d love to listen to it right now). This meme is believed to have begun in the online community 4chan, when someone claimed to have posted a link to a Grand Theft Auto trailer, but actually pointed everyone through to the man himself, Mr. Astley.




So they’re just three of our favourite memes, but there are oh so many more. If you’re looking to learn more about the world of memes, or if you feel like you now know enough to create your own then there are so many generators out there to help you, but our favourite has to be just Meme Generator. This site allows you to add your own text into meme templates really quickly and easily and then share your image with your friends online.

Now when we say “create your own meme” we mean use one of the templates that’s already there, we don’t doubt that one day you might create something original that totally goes viral and totally gets shared all around the web, but the world of memes is tricky, don’t just take a lame photo of your dog, write a caption about, say flowers and expect it to catch on, it doesn’t work like that, you can’t force it and often the best memes came about by accident, so stick with your own for now.

Here’s some we made earlier:

[Images via Icanhazcheeseburger, QuickMeme and Wikipedia]


About Becca Caddy

Becca is freelance writer specialising in all things tech, web culture and social media. She works as the Editor of Shiny Shiny and the UK Editor of Popgadget and has written for various print and online publications, including The Sunday Times, BitchBuzz and New Media Age’s spin-off publication, Reputation Online. Follow Becca on Twitter: @beccacaddy