Memes going viral: The phenomena in social media 

by Rebekka Pfennig


Chuck Norris, Harlem Shake, ALS Ice Bucket challenge, Grumpy Cat, Twerking (tweeting bomb jokes), the beer or cinnamon challenge, lifestyle lists, Gangnam Style, “forever alone”, Buzzfeed articles, …

… are only some of the latest memes in social networks. They spread like a virus, extremely fast and very contagious! In a short amount of time they reach out to thousands of users around the world.

The phenomenon has gained a huge amount of attention on Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any other type of social network. Videos, memes, pictures even articles spread exponentially – mass media is taken to a new dimension.

The word meme means in ancient Greek “imitated thing”. A meme is “an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first used the term, in his bestseller book The Selfish Gene in 1976. He used the term as a concept for discussing the spread of ideas as a cultural phenomenon. The most common form of a meme is a macro image of specific human expressions or even animals. The images “acquire a mutually understood symbolism and are therefore widely spread across the internet.

Richard Dawkins implies that memes are following the evolutionary rules such as the „survival of the fittest”. Adaptable, symbolic and funny memes survive in the storm of millions of memes and gain great success, such as the Willy Wonka meme at the top.

In the past chain letters sent via post or spread in school gained rapidly popularity caused by the snowball principle. Over time, digital ways of communication became more and more developed and the chain letter was sent via e-mail or text messages on cell phones, which was a lot easier to handle. Memes suddenly spread very easily in social networks, because the user could spread the link, video or text with hundreds of people by only a click.

You can´t really tell why a meme goes viral. Different attempts of making memes go viral show that there is no secret formula, it’s a spontaneous act. Memes create a certain emotion.

You guessed it! It’s HAPPINESS!

What kind of emotion do these videos raise? Watching a video of people dancing rises happiness. Memes about current topics or divisive content may stir anger, fear or excitement and can produce a powerful effect. Celebrity endorsement, media attention, an online community or an engineered campaign evokes memes and carries social currency. According to Jonah Berger, key principles like triggers, observability and social currency make memes go viral. Therefore, a meme works through the behaviour it generates. When you feel involved with the meme you are more likely to share it.

The visual ease of communication evokes many creative minds. A macro image with a short ironic phrase is easily understandable for everybody regardless of the cultural background. Video memes show a high sense of creativity from people around the world. The videos or products of other users motivating people to try their best and show their uniqueness. The visual communication is an universal language.

Most of the memes have in common, that they are insulting or making fun of someone or something. People gain pleasure from making fun of others. The huge and severe consequence: Cyber mobbing is a threatening issue in today´s society. On behalf of the internet, you are able to attack another person over a long distance and without having to account for it. The apparent anonymity in the digital era makes you feel save and invulnerable. Due to this phenomenon, it is easy for others to join the shitstorm and the crowd of humiliation.

Challenges for the good of charities become ridiculous because of tasks like pouring ice water over your head. The cinnamon challenge started as fun, but for some of the participants like Dejah Reeds, it led to choking, inflammatory infection and even hospitalization. Memes are also a way of expressing what is going on in society. The trash bucket challenge in Ukraine in September 2014 expressed the anger of the citizens about their politicians. These examples point out the paradox of the phenomenon.

Sharing videos, images or posts by using a hashtag or a website to connect and collect post creates a new sense of community. The community has the power to influence and motivate thousands of people during a short amount of time to do the same challenges: recreate, repost, re-share. The creator of the meme, might become well known and raises his reputation. The topic becomes a subject of discussion in society, not only in the virtual life.


The economic sector is also well aware of the fact that, mass media provides a new market. It´s a new way of spreading your product across the world in only a very short amount of time. That´s what all entrepreneurs dream of. Different experts work on re-creating viral memes, but it is hardly possible to define the secret formula.

Memes evoke a new way of communication. Communication platforms are forming online communities. A new type of creative culture emerges in social media. A new universal language spreads.

Are we aware of this shift in communication? Are we aware of the power memes gained? Are you aware of the impact memes have in your life?

Annotated bibliography: 

1. Meme Generator, online advice meme generator: The website provides macro images and explains very easily how you can create your own meme within a few seconds.

2. Know your meme, database: Know your meme is a website, which is like a database for memes, where you can learn all about its history and significance.

3. Shah, Nishant: Harlem Renaissance, Indian Express. 03/09/2013: Nishant Shah has an interesting perspective on the Harlem Shake Phenomenon.

4. Leung, Wency: How catchy works and the 3 factors that make things go viral, The Globe and Mail. 03/14/2013: Jonah Berger says, that you have to make private things public to make them go viral. But is that really what we want?

5. Meyer, Louise: Memes: How They Started, How They Go Viral [infographics]: Louise Meyers Infographic provides more interesting facts about memes, you didn´t know of yet.


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