The Anthropological Significance of Internet Memes as Digital Artefacts

If you were one of those kids in class always trying to get a laugh with a quick one-liner, you were probably one of the forerunners of the cultural artefact now known as an internet meme.  A meme is an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture. It often carries a symbolic meaning that represents a specific event or theme. The internet has turned the spread of memes into a highly visible practice and the term has become a part of the digital language.

Internet memes are everywhere these days, and most people know what they are. They are easy to create and just as easy to digest. Broken down, a meme is simply an image with a relevant catchphrase or caption. People of all ages, backgrounds and walks of life can relate to memes. With the rise of the internet and its increased connectivity, the internet meme culture has flourished. But does anyone ever stop to think about what memes mean?

Our lives are becoming more and more digitised. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly important to understand what the symbolic meaning is behind memes. Even though they seem to be nothing more than remixed messages created for entertainment. What do memes tell us about our culture?  More importantly, what kind of power do memes have in the digital world?

A meme of Fry from the animated show futurama with orange hair and a red shirt with a white t shirt, narrowing his eyes and asking “Futurama Fry” is one of the most relatable memes on the web. This meme shows the character Fry from the animated show “Futurama” with eyes narrowed thinking about contradicting questions usually referring to modern times or sarcasm (Credit: Meme Generator)

The Origin of the Word Meme

The word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It was an attempt to explain how ideas replicate, mutate and evolve (memetics). Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. Understood in those terms, memes carry information, are replicated, and are transmitted from one person to another. Additionally, they have the ability to evolve. They mutate at random and undergo natural selection, much in the same way that biological beings evolve. However, the concept of the meme remains largely theoretical.

An internet meme of Leonardo DiCaprio from the movie Django Unchained where he laughs sarcastically with a grey evening suit, gold coloured waistcoat and pink flower in his lapel This laughing meme of Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie from Django Unchained in 2005 has taken his popularity to new heights (Created with Meme Generator).

Memes and the Theory of Natural Selection

Memes are defined as culturally transmitted ideas and beliefs that can be spread from one organism, or group of organisms, to another. The concept that ideas are subject to the same forces of evolution as biological beings is not new. It was argued long before the digital era, during the time of Charles Darwin.

A key component to the meme concept is that it can self-replicate. The replication and transmission of a meme occurs when one person copies a unit of cultural information involving a meme from another person. Therefore, it undergoes a type of natural selection, much like genes and viruses. Memes do this by means of variation, mutation, competition and inheritance. Each of these affects a meme’s reproductive success.

An internet meme of a woman with talk hair with her right hand in her hair, tears flowing down her face with the caption While the “First World” terminology has been around for a while, the hashtag #firstworldproblems reached its peak in popularity on Twitter in 2011 (Credit:

Memetic transmission

In some ways, internet memes are like genes: passed from person to person. In a process of microevolution, memes spread through the behaviour that they cause in their hosts. These remixed, repeated messages from popular media are generated and regenerated until they start trending. Thus, internet memes that prove better at replicating and surviving are chosen in the meme pool. They are the ones that become the most popular within a culture.

Therefore, memes that reproduce less may become extinct. However, others may survive, spread, and mutate. Internet memes that replicate the most enjoy more success. However, some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be harmful to the safety of their hosts. In addition, humans do not always copy memes perfectly. They may refine, combine or otherwise modify them with other memes to create new memes. Just like biological beings, they respond to outside influences. As a result, they can change over time.

A diagram with 2 circles, one with genes and one with memes makinga connection. The background ais white, circles are black and the arrow is light green In some ways, internet memes are like genes, passed on from one person to another (Credit: Storality / Velikovsky)

Internet Memes as Cultural Artefacts

Internet memes rely heavily on social media. Consequently, memes are linked to the communication of younger generations as digital natives. Therefore, internet memes are considered a part of the evolution of our society. More specifically, they signify the development of youth culture and language. In a rebellious and youthful fashion, they are an ironic and parodic form of expression. Internet memes often contradict the common and accepted norms and rules of society.

As a result, internet memes can be seen as cultural barometers. This means that they embody expressions of our culture that can tell us a lot about where we are as a society. Not only do they reflect the way we think and talk about things, but they can also shape them. Therefore, internet memes can be defined as units of digital culture. It is safe to say that after nearly three decades, internet memes have rightfully earned their place as cultural artefacts of the digital world.

The internet meme Grumpy Cat of Tardar Sauce a white and brown cat who looks like a grumy person He is saying “Tardar Sauce” the Grumpy Cat is arguably the most famous Internet meme cat of all time (2012) (Credit: Know Your Meme)

The symbolism of internet memes

The most interesting thing about internet memes is what they show us about ourselves. There are websites that attempt to track internet memes so that we can understand and chart how culture unfolds. Ironically, folklorists have been trying to do this for a very long time, but without the internet. However, scientists and historians who track internet memes have the opposite problem. Instead, internet meme trackers have too many cultural artefacts.

An internet meme screen grab from a tv interview that went viral on YouTube video of Kimberly An image from a video of Kimberly “Sweet Brown” Wilkins being interviewed after having escaped a fire in her apartment building went viral (Credit:

Tracking internet memes as cultural artefacts

Like biological viruses, internet memes grow and spread and they come seemingly out of nowhere. Anything can become a meme. Even a video that is ten years old can suddenly be noticed by someone and be “recycled” into something famous overnight.  So, how do modern folklorists begin to track a meme?  In this case, because of their meteoric rise from obscure to trending, there is nothing they can ignore. All trends must be tracked.

And it is only going to get worse as more and more people come online. They will not only view what there is already but add their own cultural trends. Of course, the secret weapon in tracking internet memes is technology. Unlike all other forms of media, the internet can be searched and indexed for specific terms and phrases. Naturally, this is a fact that meme “trackers” use well.

An internet meme of Chuck Norris ina cut off denim shirt a, a gun hoslter and 2 guns in his hands with a mean expression on his face with the caption A typical Chuck Norris “tough guy” meme (2005) (Credit: Know Your Meme)

Internet Memes as an Expression of Identity

Despite the effects of globalisation, memes are strongholds of localisation from a linguistic and cultural perspective. As a result, memes have become the expression of specific identities. They also contain some of the cultural markers that people can identify with. Therefore, they enable the achievement of a local identity despite it being a part of a global culture. Images and linguistic meanings are used to create multi-layered and multi-functional memes. Their aim is to amuse receivers. However, they do not conform to stereotypes. Therefore, they forge and assert identity in the digital age.

A meme of a man wearing a woman's dress, golden earrings and make up in front of a woman's restroom. he is wearing glasses and he has a beard with a smile on his face. The caption reads A meme as an expression of identity (Credit: @miseryincorporated)

The Evolution of Internet Memes

Emoticons are one of the first resemblances of internet memes. An emoticon is a typographic display of a facial expression. Typically, it is used to convey emotion in a text-only medium. For a long time, apart from 🙂 and 🙁 most people could not decipher them. Then, in 1997, the traditional Smiley was changed into an animated face that corresponded to the emoticon made from plain punctuation marks. This enhanced it for the digital age. As a result, new generations of icons and stickers were born which are now ever-present in all our forms of digital communications. Some people have entire conversations using only emoticons.

Various yellow emoticons against a white background Emoticons (Credit:

Over time, memes have come to show interesting or amusing items that are spread online through social media.

One of the first gif memes, the digitally produced dancing baby , dressed only in a diaper against a black background One of the first internet memes, the dancing baby, remains a favourite still to this day (1995) (Credit: Know Your Meme).

The Upside of Internet Meme Culture

Internet memes can translate into money

When we see a meme, we don’t really think about money, do we? We just laugh and probably post it to our Pinterest or Facebook page. Then, we move on with our lives. But think about the site, a major meme factory. At one stage, it got more page views a month than the New York Times!  Additionally, the content was user-generated, so they did not even have to pay for it to be created. With that kind of viewership, the ad income was pretty good and nearly effortless to get.

A cute tiger striped kitten meowing into the camera with the caption (2006) is proof that meming can make you money (Credit:

Viral content can mean millions of clicks and therefore millions of dollars. Therefore, many marketing companies work hard to create the next biggest internet meme. However, not all motivators are financial. In fact, most people just want to do something that will make other people laugh.

Internet memes mean celebrity

Anything can be the next biggest meme—even a meme about a guy checking out another girl while with his girlfriend. This means that anyone can be an internet superstar overnight. The internet has made things possible that nobody could have dreamed of before. An ordinary person can become a national cultural icon in a matter of hours.

gangnam style vieo in black and white that reads Gangnam style took the world by storm in 2012 (Credit: Pinterest / Justin Lloyd)

The Downside of Meme Culture

The exploration of relationships between cultural evolution, cultural transmission, and imitation has led to intriguing theories about memes. For example, various ideas have emerged about the nature of memes, such as whether they are beneficial, neutral or harmful. Because memes are parasites or viruses of the mind, they are argued to be inherently harmful. Once they have control of a human mind, their only purpose is their own replication. By then, humans have little or no control over them.

Social media feeds are inundated with memes through our actions (via our use of social media to tune in or out of certain discourses). Additionally, it is fed to us using algorithms. These algorithms ‘predict’ what information we are most likely to be interested in and rid us of the rest. This has the potential to change human behaviour, which extends beyond the virtual. Therefore, memes can be used for spreading subversive and harmful ideologies.

An internet meme of a man from the early 20th century without a shirt, boxing with the caption A picture of John L. Sulivan (1858 – 1918) who won a boxing match that lasted 75 rounds. He was the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing (Credit:

The Power of Internet Memes

So, why is it that memes have the power to affect thousands if not millions of people? To tap into the virtual consciousness, surpassing the static noise of everyday life on the internet, affecting and influencing the way we behave?

When studying any culture, or indeed any microcosm of culture, an understanding of context is vital. Culture must be understood on its own terms. Internet memes have the power to change how society behaves. It is a quick, cheap and impactful way to get a message across, whether it be for advertising or a cause.

In essence, the possibility exists of controlling human behaviour through internet memes. Obviously, this has been attempted many times through propaganda and cultural conditioning. However, humanity seems to have a particularly visceral reaction to memes. This could be because of the deceptive simplicity of the internet meme. It does not have complex sentences as textbooks and speeches do. Furthermore, it simply expresses the essence of an idea in the most basic way possible. Internet memes distil a complex thought into its essence, into something that is so easy to consume.

An internet meme of three different dresses in different stages of being faded out in blue and black, grey and gold Who can forget to include that mind-blowing Tumbler dress that completely blew up on the Internet with the caption, “What colour is this dress?” (Credit: Know Your Meme)

The Anthropological Significance of Memes

Internet memes are a prominent feature of digital life in the 21st century. Therefore, understanding internet memes is crucial in understanding the digital culture. Internet memes carry an immense amount of meaning.  This meaning is solely generated by online prosumers and requires a vast understanding of the context of the process. These internet memes reveal the identity of an internet subculture and analyse the impact of this cultural artefact. It is in this capacity that memes are great objects of study, particularly in an anthropological context.

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