What Makes a Good Meme Last?
The Bernie Sanders mitten meme dominated the internet last week - but is it a meme that's meant to last in our consciousness forever?
Last Wednesday was the US inauguration, a day typically reserved for surprising celebrity appearances, bold platitudes from the new President elect, and a general atmospheric optimism for the incoming political party.
But if you hopped on the Internet to find any big takeaways from the Presidential speech or the event, you may have been curious to find another image trending instead. One that had little to do with the President.
A cold man with crossed arms, a brown coat, kaleidoscopic brown mittens, and a stoic, impatient impression took the internet by storm.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who is no stranger to the American politiverse, become a viral sensation - everything from his unbothered outfit choices at one of the country’s premiere events to his relatable annoyance at waiting in the cold sparked curiosity become a point of adoration. As quick as the image appeared, it went viral.
The senator quickly became a meme. Thousands of photos popped up across Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram, superimposing the Senator on top of movie scenes, world events, paintings, cartoons, and even a slightly meta situation where his likeness made its way into other memes. There were Bernie mugs, knitted Bernie crochets and Bernie stickers. It even sparked an NYU grad student to create a Bernie website using Heroku and the Google Street View API to put Sanders anywhere in the country.
The meme seemed invincible and continued to dominate the internet until the very next evening, when momentum finally stalled. Amazon hijacked the image of Sanders into an Amazon Pay ad, sparking tonedeaf backlash based on previous views Sanders had of Amazon. Journalists and other internet personalities jumped onto the meme as well, sparking a slew of think-pieces and psychological deconstructions of the meme. This all but ensured its plateau: the basic equivalent of a joke being funny until your school teachers embrace it.
The jump into the mainstream, exhaustion of places to put Sanders, and distance from Inauguration saw the spread of the meme begin to slow down. As of this morning, it feels appropriate to roll your eyes if your marketing team asks you to put a Sanders Meme on the brand account.
The entire Sanders phenomenon got me thinking a bit deeper about the rise and fall of internet memes.
Point to any year after 2012, and there’s likely been atleast 50-100 memes with little sprints of popularity throughout the year. But few of them endure beyond their fifteen minutes. Few last through the year. Even fewer last through the decade.
We all remember when Salt Bae, Grumpy Cat, and Damn Daniel were popular. We all remember the summer of Harambe. We all recognize the Philosoraptor, Bad Luck Brian, and the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man In The World memes in the wild. All of these once high octane memes are now close to dead.
Despite this, we still have Condescending Wonka, The Gunshow This Is Fine dog, and the Crying Jordan meme alive and well today.
Based on what we know, should meme endurance matter to marketers?
As we’ve seen from the scramble for brands to find their own take on the Sanders meme, relevance is still a critical anchor for top of funnel awareness. Brands want to strike while the iron is hot.
But it got me thinking: Is there a good predictor for which memes will last and which will fizzle? Is there an ideal way to test the lifecycle of a meme?
It turns out there is no clear answer, but many hypotheses from culture authors and behavioral scientists alike. Time to explore the science… of meme virality.
Why Do Memes Exist?
To understand the endurance of memes, it might help to ask a more simple question first: What is the purpose of one?
If you’ve gotten this far, you likely know what a meme is.
Coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, it is a shortened form of the word mimeme, an Ancient Greek term that means imitated thing.
Dawkins refers to memes as “units of cultural transmission”, phenomena that can be easily spread around. What we know today as an internet meme was nowhere close to how Dawkins envisioned the word - in fact, his original examples were simple things like fashion trends, melodies, and movie quotes.
In his book Contagious, Professor Jonah Berger defines the concept of social currency as a sense of pull or influence that a consumer has once they find something interesting. We desire to have something others find valuable, in order to feel gratified or included. The crux of a meme is based on this same concept - even before the Internet, people wanted to go to dinner parties and ponder conversations about Casablanca, laugh at lines from the Fonz, and join in on the harmony of Frank Sinatra tunes.
The value in social currency hasn’t gone away - but the internet introduced a new complication into the value of memes. Speed.
With the growth of Youtube, 4Chan, and Reddit in the mid 2000s, the internet meme was born. In a world where the growth of memetic ideas was once owned by writers, tv actors, and artists, the internet democratized meme generation. Anyone who had access to an internet forum could now be a meme creator. The popular meme format became a simple 300 x 300 image with dynamic text, jokes based around some thematic idea.
The Philosoraptor, which rose to popularity in 2008, was an early example of a simple idea that meme creators would harness over the next decade. Different life questions just superimposed onto a static picture of a dinosaur.
It could take a lot of deconstruction to understand the timeline of internet memes, but it largely anchors off three big developments:
Consumption: Sites like Google and Youtube, combined with forums like College Humor, 4Chan, and Reddit made the transmission of funny concepts quick, catapulting videos like Charlie Bit my Finger to virality
Creation: Sites like ImgFlip and Canva gave power to more users to create memes, at a time when participatory memes with unique jokes became mainstream
Reaction: Sites like Giphy allowed for memes to take a more dynamic meaning with gif reactions, coupled with Twitter adding gif search to make these reactions appear at the click of a button
Summed here below, you might recognize some of the memes we consumed from 2003 - 2010 and the transition into more creative memes in the mid 2010s. (I was a big drunk baby fan) - towards the later 2010s, the growth of every social tool made it almost impossible to not know which meme was trending.
So we know that memes have social currency and certain ideas have had that value add for decades before the Internet arrived. We also know that the internet made it quicker for ideas to spread, and allowed for average people to actually generate the content that could be a fulcrum of cultural transmission.
Psychologist Madeleine Pownall suggests another cultural shift brought upon by memes - that there is value in the way it has changed the threshold for communication:
In essence, memes have granted internet users a shorthand way of communicating…. The idea is that this co-creation of content allows internet consumers to actively engage in an online media dialogue, allowing the previously voiceless members of online society to participate in new forms of humor.
What scientists generally agree predicts a meme’s life expectancy is the emotional appeal and physiological reaction it provides. The veracity of a meme is often overrided by any extremes in emotional cadence. If it elicits high-arousal emotion, it will spread.
It helps explain why Sanders was popular - the juxtaposition between his pose and his different environments led to some casual absurdity, laughter, and a sense of collective enjoyment at the end of a bitterly partisan election season.
But, like everything on the internet, there are winners and losers.
What Makes a Meme Last?
The generally straightforward answer of “It’s funny!” or “Everyone is doing it!” is not enough to explain the general cadence of a good meme.
In the Unified Theory of Meme Death, author Lauren Michelle Jackson tries to dissect what makes a meme stick. She makes an assertion that memes “uniquely and deliberately make depth inconsequential to their appreciation” - thus, over analysis ends up being one of the first factors that kills a meme.
There’s an obligatory defense embedded in most meme coverage, as if writers sense they must keep the analysis at a minimum lest they spoil the fun.
These thoughts were echoed by Elena Cresci, whom Jackson cites in her article: “When it comes to memes, there’s a rule: It is dead as soon as the think pieces come out.”
Even while studying the Sanders meme for this article, I was more entertained by the variety of ludicrous images than the psychoanalyses in Psychology Today explaining why the meme was a sign of optimism for the country.
But, Jackson’s piece brings up a key reason why memes never last: as soon as they go mainstream, they lose their luster. For the internet meme, speed is critical. Being late to the show is almost more embarrassing than missing the show altogether.
To wonder if a meme will have legs, you can consider the following categories:
Topical and Social Memes tend to have the highest chance of going immediately viral. Mittens Bernie is largely an example of both - immediately potent after the inauguration and largely grown with the amount of creativity involved in custom generated memes.
But both of these have time bound anchors - For a topical meme, the anchor is an event or period of time. Nobody would make a 2016 election meme today similar to the one above. Similarly, if someone made a covfefe, Rebecca Black or Harambe joke in January 2021, you’d probably look at them as if they lived under a rock. Topical memes are subject to newsjacking and, from Jackson’s analysis above, subject to quick death. As soon as Harambe was brought into the mainstream for animal cruelty, the “Pour one out for Harambe” jokes got less serious.
Social memes have an extra anchor beyond just a period of time - they beget social participation. The Harlem Dance, Gangnam Style, and even the static ImgFlip memes of the early 2010s all fall under this category. Incentivized by social proof and in-group validation, you want to participate. It flexes your creativity and unique value. But the social currency is a double edged sword - what is once a crowned jewel valuable dilutes as more and more people participate. All of a sudden, Amazon, Jake Tapper, and that annoying guy from your high school are sharing Bernie memes and that’s when you know the end is near.
For topical and social memes, brands need to act fast. Topical memes usually reward creators within the first 48 hours and most social challenges last about two weeks. Beyond that, the threshold for creativity rises in order to stay alive.
Then you get to the Reaction, Nostalgic, and Utilitarian Memes.
These are the ones that don’t die as easily.
Reaction Memes survive beyond the classic topical and social into their own category - because the anchor here is emotion, it isn’t stalled by time. Crying Jordan, Evil Kermit, Distracted Boyfriend, Condescending Wonka, and Blinking White Man are all alive and well in 2021 - they may last beyond the current year simply because they are category defining within their emotion. Crying Jordan is the posterchild of a sports loss and Blinking White Man, the posterchild for bewilderment. You don’t get faulted for using a reaction meme when the timing is right, regardless of how old the meme is.
Nostalgic Memes go a step further - they typically have the same spirit as reaction memes, but add an element of nostalgiac that brings out a larger in-group. Take the Spongebob Memes for example. In another piece for Vulture called How Did Spongebob Squarepants Become the Most Meme-able TV Show, Lauren Michele Jackson cites the profundity, oddities and spectacular realism of Spongebob for its popularity in the meme world. It’s easy to recall characters, memories, and moments from the show, along with its treatises of optimism and nihilism. This, combined with general familiarity, makes Spongebob reaction memes all the more appetizing to use.
Utilitarian Memes are usually the memes that will never die. Memes you almost need to know in order to survive on a day to day basis. One of the clearest of this comes from internet lingo: lol, brb, omg all started as unique units of cultural transmission. Despite the fact that photo memes grew in rapid popularity, you’d be hard pressed to find a single individual who doesn’t know the meaning of lol. Utilitarian Memes also align closer to the initial Dawkins definition - if any meme can be considered a cultural mainstay, it will never die.
The question of whether or not a brand should meme is one that frustrates and agonizes even the best of brand managers. Part of the reason meme execution is so frustrating is that they can’t fully be predicted - no social team in December 2019 knew that they would have to add Bernie Sanders mittens memes to the content calendar. Nobody in early 2013 knew that they would have to learn the art and science of the Harlem Shake.
In essence, a growing meme really forces you to get into an uncomfortable place. Force yourself to embrace speed and creativity in execution before the meme goes mainstream. If the Bernie Sanders phenomenon has affirmed anything, it’s that topical and social memes need a better home in modern marketing plans. For the right timing, it’s a gift to the top of the funnel that keeps giving.
It also paints an interesting picture of where the consumer world is going when it comes to communication - gone are the worlds of press releases and billboards that will drive traffic. In its stead, a solid meme gives you a virtually non-existent CAC.
In her piece, Jackson ends with a compelling message:
The pace of life online tests the durability of culture like nothing else before, but it is still ultimately culture. The memes we forget say as much about us as the memes that hold our attention.
While we may forget the memes, we’ll never forget the moments where brands sat on the bench while others were hitting it out of the park.