It’s in your memes

Image from Wallpapersafari

Vast majority of the internet traffic reads alot of articles. And if you are reading this article, I'm sure you know what the internet is. And I'm pretty sure that you know what a meme is. Also to be honest it is pronounced as “meems” and not “meymey”. And I'm sorry to show you the mirror but what you think is a meme is not a meme. Many people believe that a meme is something hilarious, relatable and entertaining. But the meme is something that existed way before the internet did. Memes rhyme with genes for a reason. Let's find out!

The word meme was coined in the book, The Selfish Gene written by the English evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.1 It was termed as a behavioural equivalent to genes. The term was used to encourage readers to think about how Darwinian principles might be extended beyond the realm of genes. As genes carry data to survive in themselves, memes are said to transmit data that makes a society survive. Let’s take a deep dive into what a meme is.


Memes as we tend to think of them, are funny images or videos with the most popular content, dominating our social media feeds. There are more than 1M members of the subreddit about memes and the chat room is closed because of it reaching the limit of maximum members.2 But I think memes go deeper than this. As I discussed with a friend of mine who is a psychological student, memes are scientific units of cultural information and they are using us. Memes are using our brains and the Internet to spread themselves as widely as possible online.

But to a mediocre brain like mine, this does not sound like a gene. This sounds like a virus. Because the memes tend to spread an idea that attaches to us, like a song that gets stuck in one’s head. Science and our modern internet usage are colliding in a way that is really directly impacting humanity. This concept is explained in a brilliant way in the video linked above by Olivia Gordon on the SciShow YouTube channel.

We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Memes.

Let’s imagine it in the mid-1990s. Indian television is excellent, and less cringe is available. Everyone is ready for a new century that will bring flying cars by 2020. (Ahem) The internet is a new thing, and dial-up internet is the boon of connectivity. As you are connected to people on Usenet forums, who you might not know in real life, you would want to be funny in front of them.3 Because, why not? There are two ways of doing so. Either you send a bad dad joke which has 0.01% chances to work, or you send them something that you think is common between you two.

There are fewer things common to be found between two strangers. So what to do now? You send the other person an image of a cat with the words "Hi!" written on the image. The terms are not a caption below the picture but on the image. And strangely enough, this image gets a great reception from the other end, because it is cute and lovable. The other person develops a picture of you that you are adorable, relatable and funny. Did you see that? What a straightforward image did?

The Spiderman meme for depicting two similarities between objects. (Image from Imageflip)

This is how memes were used in the beginning. And don't be surprised, it is still used a similar way. People judge others based on the quality of memes they share. The quality depends on the relatable content, and the time it is shared. There is a Marvel movie out, and there is a scene that everyone found funny or a dialogue which is very relatable to people. So an artist takes a snip of this scene and adds a relatable context which can be relatable or has nothing to do with the movie. And it is damn hilarious. People will recall the scene subconsciously and think about how they relate to it. It is like magic!

Life of a Meme.

The life curve of a meme as proposed by Aldo Polanco Nunez.

This is the life curve of a meme as proposed by Aldo Polanco Nunez in his TED Talk. (I highly recommend you to watch this talk!) This chart of a meme in itself is a meme. I can relate to it, and it also is funny. As discussed earlier, a meme is posted shortly after a movie, or a video is viral on the internet. It gains traction on social media like Reddit and 4chan. Reddit is a cesspool of memes and is the first point to find good memes. Usually, it goes to twitter from here and is retweeted or replicated to a different context by users. A similar trend is followed in Instagram.

The Boromir meme from the Lord of the rings. (Image from Memegenerator).

From here, this meme gains enough traction to reach a celebrity or a famous person and this person posts it on their account. News articles are written on this related to the celebrity, stating what he/she finds funny. The fans repost it, making it more viral. This is the time when the meme is on its peak. The commonality of the meme makes it stale, and the downfall of it begins. Marketers use this meme to endorse their product on social media. Political parties start using these memes to support their ideology. The most significant example of this is the 2014 Indian Elections. Seeing this one day there is a surge in the usage of this meme. And it is shared by none other than your parents on Facebook. And this is the last nail in the coffin for teenagers to move-on.

The last Law

If you are not into ready legal paragraphs… skip this part. :P

The eligibility of any memes to get copyright protection would depend on the copyright law of the country in which such security is sought. Some of the most popular formats of memes are cinematographic stills (as discussed), personal or stock photographs, rage comics, and illustrations meant to be a meme. A meme made from a movie is generally accompanied by a superimposed text of which conveys a unique idea or comment, such as the Boromir meme (shown above) or Gru's Plan. I briefly studied the Indian Copyright scene.

A meme mocking the copyright terms of memes and letting people use this for free.

The Indian Copyright act was written in 1957 when the term meme was not even in existence. Under Section 2(c) a meme can be classified as an 'artistic work' which states that an artistic work includes painting, sculpture, drawing (including a diagram, map, chart or plan), an engraving or a photograph, whether or not any such work possesses artistic quality.4 There is an interesting phrase in this section. It says, "whether or not possessing artistic quality." This phrase makes the memes based on rage comics or the memes based on Keyboard Cat enjoy protection as they are original creations in the form of a painting, drawing, photograph or short video clip, despite not having artistic quality. The same scenario is with stills from movies because they have some 'artistic' modifications in them. These memes are a modification of that already existing artistic work with some little amount of creativity, and therefore, they would also enjoy copyright protection.

Whereas, India follows a Fair Dealing approach as an exception to copyright infringement under Section 52(1)(a) for private or personal use, criticism or review. The analysis requires three steps: the amount and substantiality of dealing, the purpose of copying, and the effect on potential markets.5

Why do we share memes?

According to Mackenzie Finklea in her TED talk, memes are shared because of these following reasons.

  1. For Validation
  2. To make fun of your friends.
  3. To make a statement/start a conversation.
  4. To laugh/distract through commonality.

We already discussed the validation part before. We want to make a mark on the other person and to show how up to date and funny you are. We can even make fun of our friends by tagging them on memes which will lead to a joke that has an internal context. Memes can be used to make a lot of friends. If you share a meme on Star wars the star wars fans will automatically want to be friends with you. Imagine what a conversation started such a connection could bring. This sharing, in a way, is building a community. All of this gives a sense of belonging and provides the freedom to people to make fun about something that all collectively love or hate.

The last point is mostly relatable to everyone. We scroll through our social media feed to get some laughs and occasional news. People who are tired of working and want to switch to something else, involuntarily go to their pockets pick up their phones and go to twitter for a feed full of memes. We sometimes share hours of our times looking and laughing on memes. We seek a funny meme and share it with our friends. This is a symbolism of "I like this." But somewhere between the lines, it usually says "I AM like this." We seek validation from others on the memes that we find funny. And that is how this chain goes further.

In the future maybe someday internet meme creation will be a skill essential to successful relationships or even jobs. The Job market maybe already counts this as an essential part. But, for now, keep scrolling, keep sharing.

Now your turn

Before ending the article I want to share another video. Count it as a tribute to one of the best actors in India. It is in Hindi so apologies to non-Hindi speaking readers.

Thank you guys, for making it to the end of the article. If you think this was a good read, please consider subscribing and share it with your friends. Show them how cool you are. Also, let me know what you want to read about next. You can find the links to the social media below:

  1. Reddit:r/theinvisiblegenius
  2. Twitter: @notnitinchopra

Reference links

  1. The Selfish Gene.
  2. Meme: The Karma Springboard.
  3. What Is A Meme? The Definitive WIRED Guide | WIRED
  4. Section 2(c) in the Copyright Act, 1957
  5. India Code: Copyright Act, 1957


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