What Are Internet Memes And Why Did They Become So Popular?


I am a little bit fascinated by internet memes since some time. I asked myself why they became so popular and how it could be explained. The answer to this question might be obvious or not but I want to dig a little bit deeper into this subject now.

What Are Internet Memes?

The chance is very high that you noticed them already, it’s in fact quite hard to miss them in the internet these days because internet memes are a widespread phenomena. But maybe you noticed them, you just didn’t know that they are called memes. Internet memes are these pictures that transport a message. It is often a funny photo that becomes even more funny when people put a catchphrase on it. It could be a parody of a photo but the image could also come with a more serious message.

A meme is basically an idea, a message that is spread from person to person, in most cases it is a message highly targeted and spread by users for a niche or within a subculture. Also videos can be a meme, but if people speak of internet memes, they do today often mean those labeled pictures. It must be mentioned that internet memes are just an adjusted phenomena of a behaviour that was already there before the internet.

To name examples, painting “I was here” on something, or a couple carving a love message with initials into a park bench with a knife, that is a behaviour that became so widespread that we all saw these messages anywhere at some point. It’s basically the same, just that those messages were transported on another medium, the wood of the park bench for example, and with other tools like knifes or paint markers. For internet memes, the medium is the internet and an image, the tool is the keyboard of our computer and the computer mouse.

Another similar example is a graffiti that became very popular in the USA in 1940. So, many things can be a meme and spreading a message, a graphic or an idea, that is nothing new. Yes, any graffiti is basically a meme too. You can say, internet memes are just the adjusted form of sharing a short message or idea.

internet meme popularity

Why Did Internet Memes Become So Popular?

Memes And The Attention Span

I think there are several reasons. First of all, a picture with a caption does transport a message much faster than a long video or a long article. That doesn’t mean that a long article or a long video is inferior to a meme, but the meme is in advantage when it comes to the attention span. While many people love to read detailed internet articles or watch long and entertaining videos, it is not guaranteed that this kind of content would get the attention of all internet users.

Pictures with a short caption however do not need your attention for such a long time, they transport the message within seconds. There are studies for example that recorded 59,573 page views of internet users and the results were that 17% of the views of the content lasted less than 4 seconds while 4% lasted over 10 minutes. They also calculated that the average attention span of internet users and the result was 8 seconds in 2013. To make you laugh, they also measured the attention span of a gold-fish and the result was 9 seconds.

The Guardian suggested in one article “Say it quick, say it well” and wrote about the attention span as well and proved it with other numbers taken from studies. I would disagree that we need to stop creating long form or detailed content, but all the numbers do at least prove the advantage of captioned pictures, so-called internet memes.

It would be boring if we wouldn’t be able to find very detailed information’s in the internet, but what I mean is that time is a big factor when it comes to the popularity of internet memes. While you have 8 seconds to convince an internet user to read through your full article, a meme did transport already a short message within that time span. I think that is one factor why internet memes are very popular and spread all over the place and in different communities.

Memes Are Highly Targeted And Easy To Share

The advantage that a meme can tell you a short story quick combined with the fact that you can target a particular audience instantly, as sharing a picture works flawless anywhere, that makes them strong too. There are many ways to share images, with emails, through blogs, with all kind of messaging apps or on any social media platform. In almost any case, the image would show up fully loaded on your screen, whether you use a mobile device or a desktop device, while long text content doesn’t show up fully. This means memes are blatant in a positive way when it comes to outreach. Not that you only don’t need much attention to get the message of a meme, they are extremely easy to share and they do deliver the message on one screen and that immediately.

Now if you do for example caption a funny photo of your cat with a cool message to share it, you can reach anybody interested in cats. That doesn’t promise that every single meme would get popular, but they are so easy to grasp that the potential is very high. That applies to all kind of subcultures, a funny photo of a soccer star captioned with a hilarious message, that one has the potential to reach anybody interested in soccer. Memes related to your interests for example, have a high chance to make people interested in the same stuff feel a sense of connection. They are so popular because they create connections between a subject and an audience. This is the relation memes do ride on.

So, memes are basically often something like inside jokes. Memes have the potential to spread through communities like viruses, and that is where the term viral marketing comes up. Viral content can appear in many different forms too, and did appear before internet memes became very popular, but as memes have some features that make them highly sharable, not only the regular internet user is interested to create them, companies try it too but they often appear organic and do often fall short to deliver a joke. Popular memes instead are not forced or created to sell something, they become popular because they connect people and their interests, they are creations of people with the same interests, shared and enjoyed by people with same interests.

Memes Are Easy To Create

As a meme is basically just a photo and a caption, it is not really rocket science to create them. You just need a nice photo that you want to caption (You should have permission to use the image or use your own). The process of creating memes is really not too difficult. There are all kind of meme generator websites out there but if you want a little bit more control it is suggested to use a graphics software. You can use any graphics software and I wrote a guide how to make memes with Photoshop. But as said, if you don’t have a graphics software installed, you could also use one of the meme generators you can find with Google. I just mention it as I think that this is another reason why you find memes all over the place, it’s not difficult to create them and a lot of people do it.


Internet memes are phenomenons that probably won’t disappear anytime soon. Memes are like a bridge that makes a connection between people who share the same interests. It’s easy to make a meme, and it’s easy to share them. Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and sites like Reddit, Instagram, Pinterest or even blogging platforms like WordPress have a huge community where internet memes became integral pieces of entertainment. People love it if they have something in common, people love to laugh about something together, and that is the reason for the popular memes, they are connective and this is why memes travel across the internet like crazy and why memes are a popular phenomena. Let me know in the comments what you think about memes. Why are internet memes so popular, did I miss something? What is your opinion about memes generally?

Want to read more? Check out my article about the most popular meme font.


15 thoughts on “What Are Internet Memes And Why Did They Become So Popular?

  1. Thanks for a very good explanation of memes and why they are so popular. I’d heard the word for a long time and sort of understood what it meant but your post has made it much clearer for me.

    1. I am happy that you liked it. It’s really an interesting subject because these images spread like wildfire in the web, and when something is so popular, I often ask myself why and how it could be explained. I am glad you liked the post about this subject 🙂

  2. Thanks for writing this article.its going to help me write my paper on memes for my psychology class. I’ll cite your article as one of my sources. 😊

  3. I hate memes. They fill my belly with fury. I love comedy, I love cats, & I even love broken English & non-sense but I hate almost 100% of memes I’ve seen. I guess it is like rock bands. They’ll have the same instruments as each other but I can hate one & love another. Memes are the “art” of children while the true artists continue to starve as they always have. I’ve been putting comedy & other creative works on the web since ‘ot 2 & have received no acclaim, fans, or even general regard. But this brain dead trash gets passed around by millions of zombified smartphone users.

  4. I’m still a little confused by the definition of a meme. My friend seems so annoyed when i refer something to be a meme, he is so convinced if I create a Simpsons “meme” from meme generator myself for example as you wrote above, then post it on online, this cannot be a meme. A meme has to be passed through large quantities of people and has to go viral online before it is a “meme”. And my “meme” is just a picture with a label on it. All my time I have been on the internet I have never heard anything of this? Everyone I know has called “a picture with a label on it” a meme. I can’t see much online to say this is true. Some explanations I’ve seen on YouTube define exactly as I knew it. Does a “meme” have to go viral before it’s called that?

    1. I think these days every single picture with a caption is just called a meme and you are right. Everyone just started to call them memes. They have the potential to spread like wildfire, but they don’t always do this since there is a rather large quantity of created memes today and not as much people to look at them all. I think I know why your friend says it, because as I wrote, memes of the old days were for example messages like “I was here” carved into wood, or written on the wall with a Sharpie for example. So, back then, the ideas did first spread. Talking of today, I can asure you too, if you show 10 people a digital picture with a caption, probably 3 of them will call them memes, the other 7 are not geeky enough to know how these internet things are called at all, they would probably just call them “images with captions”. 😀

      So, if you ask me. Nope, I don’t think the images have to go viral before you can call them a meme. When almost everyone in the internet calls them memes, they are probably just memes and your friend has to accept it 🙂 Can you prove this to your friend? No, I don’t think so, you can just argue the same. When everyone in this world starts to call “Ice cream” differently, maybe “Cream ice”, we probably have to accept it at some point, especially as younger and younger generations will adapt, and we will be out at that point 🙂

      Lots of websites have sub categories or tags for memes, and not every single meme is popular. Take Reddit for example, there is the meme subreddit, but not every single picture gets to the front page. Same for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and so on, you can basically browse for memes, but not every single meme you find will be a very popular one. It just shows that everyone just calls them memes these days. I call my own images with captions memes beforehand too, because I think they are just called that way. I think the word meme is so short that it’s accepted instead of “images with captions”. Probably the same as why people call self portraits just “selfies” these days. It’s short and catchy.

  5. Thanks for clearing this up for me. I’ve long wondered what memes were and the dictionary explanation I didn’t understand. It’s a long article, plus the detours to the underlined bits, but totally absorbing, so thanks again. You’ve put a lot of work into this to help others.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I am glad you liked the article. About “internet memes”, I think you can explain it in short and say they are those images with captions that you see all over the internet. But with this article I wanted to go a bit into detail and explain why they are so popular. I am glad you liked the information’s. 🙂

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