Chapter 6: 21st-century media and issues

6.4.4 Messages through memes (research essay)

Alexander Caldwell

English 102, April 2021

The simple fact is that humans are social animals. With that in mind, anything social should be studied and learned about to ensure that humanity has an understanding of itself. Memes, without question, play a role in modern society and will likely do so for some time to come. While it is difficult trying to turn a topic that is not serious at all into an academic study, I find it most rewarding to know more about those short and humorous texts or videos. Memes make many people, I included, share a laugh and can be enjoyed by almost everyone.

Understanding A Meme

To get a closer look at memes, I decided to conduct a survey. The survey asked three questions. The first question, “What is your favorite meme?” Each respondent had a different favorite meme. Some of the memes were more popular, like doge memes, others were lesser-known. In theory, this question was not needed. Memes are memes regardless of how one likes or dislikes them. The real purpose of this question was to give clarity to the respondent. This question allowed the respondent to think more specifically about one meme. This is important for the next question that was asked. The next question intended to find out why memes are funny but asking that question directly would be too vague. By adding the previous question about what meme they favored, the participants could go into detail and have context for what meme they favor and would like to describe. That brings the next question where the survey asked, “What do you think makes this meme funny to you?” This question was what I was truly trying to get at. This question helps the understanding of why people enjoy memes in the first place. Many results came for this question, all interesting none the least. One of the respondents replied, “It’s straight to the point and the text catches you off guard” in reference to the “Mom I threw up” meme. This shows that the respondent enjoys the element of surprise and the simplicity of the meme. This respondent was not the only one who likes memes due to surprise. Others also answered in a similar fashion stating, “The randomness of it.” Another respondent answered this question in a different manner. Their meme is related to a popular figure, like Burnie Sander memes or Kermit the Frog memes. These responses followed the lines of liking the meme because they like the image or the entity that was in the meme. The final noticeable response was related to dark humor. The respondent answered, “It makes fun of something damn near cringeworthy out of people who like being “Positive” … in a way which is dank… It hits a lot of the checkmarks all in one package.” This type of response shows that dark humor reaches the viewer by making fun of ordinary objects in life and turns them into something that contradicts the original object. This information says that while people enjoy memes for different reasons, memes are successful at humor because of their relatability and their unexpected nature. The last question I asked was how people share or find memes. These responses were to be expected, many find them online and through social media. Popular platforms include Discord, Instagram, Twitter, through text messaging. With that in mind, memes appear to have a part in modern-day social life as they are a part of humor, social media, and texting.

While a survey is an adequate way of getting close to the understanding of what a meme is, a rhetorical analysis of a meme might also help introduce some perspective on what a meme is. The meme I choose for the analysis is one selected from one of the respondents’ responses and can be seen as posted on Reddit. This meme appears to have first been posted on Reddit in 2019, under the community of “me_irl,” which means ‘me in real life.’ The meme is by no means formal writing and was posted on Reddit to share a piece of humor created by the author. Therefore, the audience of the meme is others online, in particular, people on Reddit. The author appears to relate to the audience by stating that they were up late and wanted something to eat. It uses a sort of shadow-demon to relate to what would normally just be a human eating a late-night snack. This invokes humor because it creates emotion for an unexpected connection between the shadow demons and the consumption of beans. What makes the image even funnier is the blur and the laser-red eyes. This adds humor because it makes the image look as if it is out of a horror film. Yet, the topic at hand is only about eating beans contradicting the horror-movie-like setup. This analysis lightly suggests there are more to memes than one might initially think. It is clear that the creators of memes can relate to their audience and can invoke emotions by using memes. This leads to the need to understand what memes can be used for outside the limits of just entertainment.

One final aspect that is important to observe memes is finding out where memes come from. As the survey suggests, memes appear to be shared throughout social networks quite a bit. This still leaves the answer of where they originate from unknown. Luckily, an organization by the name of Emerging Technology, from arXiv, is capable of answering this question in their article “This Is Where Internet Memes Come From.” The study found out that a large sum of memes is being actively created in 4chan communities. The study suggests that these communities are mass-producing memes, many of which are politically charged. This goal was accomplished by sifting through millions of memes and tracking their origins (Emerging Technology). Knowing where the majority of memes come from can be handy. To elaborate, in my survey, not a single person mentioned that they used 4chan as a meme source. While it is possible that people withheld information, I do not think it is likely. Rather, it could suggest that if 4chan is in fact a major meme producer, social media plays as a powerful tool for disseminating memes. Furthermore, it could be implying that the typical meme off of a social media other than 4chan has been copied over from one platform to another.

Memes Used in the Real World

In the world at large, memes are beginning to be realized as an affluent force in human society. With that said, it is not hard to realize that memes are being used for different purposes, one of the areas in specific is advertising and marketing. In the article “We “Meme” Business: Exploring Malaysian Youths’ Interpretation of Internet Memes In Social Media Marketing” authors Kee-Man Chuah et. al. surveyed with the intent to help the marketing world. The survey was composed of fifty Malaysian youths. The goal of the survey was to get an understanding of what the youths would understand and consider funny. The results showed that memes with shorter text and text more related to the image of the meme were more understood. Chuah describes this relationship between the meme and the individual’s understanding as “iconicity” (932-941). Iconicity plays an important role in marketing as the more iconicity a meme has, the better off the meme will be at achieving the business’s goal for product awareness. The next step then would be to find out if memes can actually be used for marketing. Fortunately, in Harshit Sharma’s “Memes in Digital Culture and Their Role in Marketing and Communication: A Study in India” the answer is found. Sharma looks at a few examples. One example is where a business generates a meme for their products, and another is where the public generates memes on their own which gives the product publicity. Sharma first alludes to an old spice commercial. The commercial involved a short, quick-pasted, humorous scene with football celebrity Isaiah Mustafa. This commercial acted as a meme and was even spread like a meme, going through a multitude of social media. In short, Old Spice’s commercial meme was a success, boosting sales to 207 percent (305). It goes without saying that the meme generated by Old Spice must have had a high iconicity, which explains its success. The other use of memes the article goes over is public-generated memes. This example examines the two Indian drink brands that are complements to each other, Thumbs Up, a cola, and Old Monk, a rum. The situation proceeded when the inventor of Old Monk died. An image of a glass half empty started to circulate on social media with the text “This glass is half empty” (Sharma 312). An example of this image can be seen here. This publicly generated meme offered both products free advertising and publicity that undoubtedly helped the companies in the long run. From here, I must allude to the fact that marketing is nothing but the effective and clever use of communication to convince a consumer to buy a product. This hints at a greater picture of what memes are.

Another, even more, noticeable than ever, use of memes is in politics. It is quite obvious that memes are a part of modern politics, but it still begs the question of how memes are used in politics and what memes mean to the realm of political engagement. As it turns out, Vera Zakem’s et. al. article “Exploring the utility of memes for US government influence campaigns” has a few comments to share on the matter. Zakem writes that politicians have three primary uses for memes, to inoculate, to infect, and to treat. Inoculate refers to the action of sharing memes that try to convince the audience to have a lighter judgment on an issue that negatively affects a politician. Infect is the spreading of memes that support a politician’s ideas. Treat is the category that describes memes that try to rebuttal any negative information that is against a politician (15-16). While appearing to relate to a disease, the actual relationship memes seem to have is a tie to communicating to the audience. Politicians can use memes to advance or defend what they stand for. Zakem then provides an example of infection and treatment via memes as seen in figure 3. The article goes over a situation where a United States ambassador in Russia was accused, falsely, of attending a political movement that would negatively impact the ambassador. This was the infection. The embassy responded with a meme that inoculated the situation, thereby treating it. The meme used the same image the accuser used, and re-photodoped the ambassador in different places, including the moon (4-5). The situation itself is humorous, but it only goes to show the power memes hold. For the ambassador’s case, memes proved to be a useful tool for publicly defending his reputation. See this website for examples of the memes.

Continuing with the relationship between memes and politics, it is quite obvious that younger generations are taking part in political memes. Emma Axelrod agrees with this statement in her article “The Role of Memes in Politics.” Axelrod then adds that people are starting to view politics more like sports teams. These teams are then influenced by memes. The example that she brings up, among others, is the meme about Ted Cruz being the zodiac killer (Axelrod). Despite the fact that Cruz was not actually a zodiac killer of any kind, a negative demagogue formed around him. During this time, circa the 2016 election, even I noticed the zodiac killer memes and could not help but connect Cruz to those memes. Denying the power memes have over politics is futile. However, this is all the more reason to study political memes and their effects on people. Fortunately, the insight needed for looking deeper into political memes is provided by Heidi E. Huntington’s “Affect and effect of Internet memes: assessing perceptions and influence of online user-generated political discourse as media.” The article by Huntington follows a study on how political and non-political memes influence an individual. The political memes were generally found to be easily identifiable by the subject. The subjects viewed these memes as a vehicle for political stances rather than simple jokes. In response to this, if the meme did not follow their political ideology, it was contested by the viewer. In other words, the memes that were identified as political fail to bring in understanding, rather they brought adversity from the viewers (Huntington 186-187). This statement implies heavily that political memes share a message, a message that will be rejected by viewers of a different opinion. The study also talks about what happens to non-political memes as well. As it turns out, memes that appear to be non-political have an easier time persuading the viewer. This is in spite of the fact that people only saw these memes as jokes and not actual arguments (Huntington iii). Huntington’s research hints that people are able to interpret and respond to a meme. The implications here are that while political memes do not always achieve their goal, they are still able to elicit a response. Interestingly enough, non-political memes seem to hold a coinciding power, only in the case of non-political memes, people do not reject the message being sent.

Memes’ Meaning to Human Communication

It is clear now that memes have many different purposes. Memes play a role in politics, business, and general entertainment. A linking trait between all three topics is that memes seem to serve as a sort of medium for communication. One might even be so bold as to conclude that memes and communication have direct relevance to one another. Think about it, memes are capable of sending a variety of messages for their viewers, whether it’s to advocate a politician, products, or simply to share a laugh. For these reasons, I believe it is safe to say that memes play a role in human communication.

To understand what memes have to do with communication, it is crucial to understand the original definition of a meme. As it turns out, the term “meme” did not start as a reference to internet jokes and humorous comments. In James Gleick’s “What Defines a Meme?” the term meme was crafted by a man named Richard Dawkins in the year 1986. Dawkin’s definition of a meme was an idea, behavior, or culture and its ability to spread through people. These memes are comparable to genetics and can even evolve. Dawkin’s memes also have the ability to latch on to physical items as well. An example that Gleick uses is the hula hoop. In the late fifties, the hula hoop became popular. While the hula hoop was not a meme itself, it was an object that was used by the meme. Therefore, a meme’s survival is dependent on the success of the object the meme is associated with (Gleick). With that in mind, Dawkin’s memes are not really all that different from the modern understanding of a meme. It is logical to conclude that modern memes fall under Dawkin’s definition of meme. This makes sense since internet memes are humorous ideas and messages that get spread throughout the wide web. Internet memes also evolve and change with current events. As funny as it sounds, memes can be considered to be one of Dawkin’s memes. A final note on Dawkin’s meme can be found in “Memes as Speech Acts,” by L. Grundlingh. The term for Dawkin’s meme comes from the Greek word “mīmēma” which translated to “something imitated” (Grundlingh 147). This can, again, be tied into memes as memes are shared, copied, and remade all the time. Grundlingh continues by then adding the idea of semiotics. Semiotics is defined in Grundlingh’s article by T. A. Sebeok “Signs: An Introduction to Semiotics” as being an apparent link between nonverbal and verbal communication (qtd. 148). Memes share verbal and nonverbal pieces of the semiotic definition. This is noteworthy because semiotics describes or categorizes how memes communicate. Grundlingh even presses so far as to say that memes are a speech act, the communication, and understanding between two people (148). This makes sense knowing full-well that memes can advocate politicians, advertise products, and share humor with other people. Another approach to tying memes in with communication is the notion that memes are basically a language of their own. Patrick Davison wrote about this idea in his article “The Language of Internet Memes.” Memes, like any language, follow a set of formulas and branch out similar to how a language has accents and slang. The overarching meme is what is called an image macro. Variants and remakes of this meme are then called submemes (Davison 127). Anyone that has indulged themself with memes before can understand the comparisons that are being made. Davison’s comparison was ideal for introducing the concept that memes supplement as a language of their own. In the article by Opspe titled “Memetic Communication” the author explains how memes can be used in place of verbal communication. The writer elaborates with the idea that people send each other gifs, images, or videos. The content is usually considered a meme by nature and can be understood by the recipient of the meme. The author refers to these texts as reaction images (Opspe). This makes sense, I personally, have also used memes to express my thoughts and feelings. An example of this is the “sector is clear” meme as shown in figure 4.

This meme came from a Star War video game and implied that everything is calm, for the moment. This meme also implies another message. It also implies that this calm might be very temporary as the next text plane usually continues with the clone trooper say “not clear, not clear” with sparks flying in the background. I have no doubt that others have also shared a meme in place of text or verbal words. Going back to the article, the author also makes reference to words, mainly slang, that have their origin thanks to memes. The author references 4chan and other meme-based social media as a source of many slang terms like “lol” “derp” and “yolo.” These slang terms were created due to their close relationship with memes (Opspe). It is quite clear that memes are a part of communication and in some cases even play as a medium of communication.

Personal Experience With Memes

Memes are an item produced by the public and for the public, mostly that is. I have seen many opinions shared through my experience through memes. I have even gone to lengths to make my own opinion through the use of memes once or twice. I, like many others my age, became something of a meme connoisseur. The effect I believe memes had on me was that I slowly became more apathetic to politics. The issue that I noticed with political memes was that they created something of a demagogue. They seem to create a mentality of “my political candidate is pure, and the other candidate is literally Hitler or a witch.” I came to this conclusion on my own years before reading about how Axelrod’s finding in “The Role of Memes in Politics” which basically described a similar scenario. For that reason, I nowadays only try to use memes for general entertainment. Another purpose that I personally use memes for is to keep up to date with current events. While trying to abstain from the political realm, I find that memes can be quite enlightening for current events in science, economics, and society as a whole. My favorite example of this is the black hole memes that were produced in light of the first live image of a black hole. Another, more recent, example is the Suez Canal memes. Regardless of where memes venture to talk about, I will continue to enjoy them.

Concluding Statements

It is a matter of fact that memes are a part of communication at large. With that said noting how humanity uses memes should be important. The power in memes can be seen in a multitude of areas including and not limited to politics, advertising, and general entertainment. Memes can be used against people and can harm just as easily as they can be used to share a laugh. For that reason, when one shares a meme, they should be conscious of what they are actually communicating by posting the meme. Some will be eager to judge other’s memes, and some turn a blind eye to ill-willed memes. I say, for the best or worse, let memes be memes. In the end, humans are social animals and memes are just another form of human communication.

Works Cited

Axelrod, Emma. “The Role of Memes in Politics.” Brown Political Review, 20 Mar. 2016,

Caldwell, Alexander W. “Meme Survey for College Writing.” Google Forms, Mar. 2021,

Chuah, Kee-Man, Yumni Musfirah Kahar, and Looi-Chin Ch’ng. “We “Meme” Business: Exploring Malaysian Youths’interpretation Of Internet Memes In Social Media Marketing.” International Journal of Business and Society, Vol. 21 No. 2, 2020.

Davison, Patrick. “The Language of Internet Memes.” The Social Media Reader, edited by Michael Mandiberg, New York University Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,

EA Star Wars. “Star Wars Battlefront II: Official Gameplay Trailer” YouTube, 10 Jun. 2017.

Emerging Technology from the arXiv. “This Is Where Internet Memes Come From.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 11 June 2018,

Gleick, James. “What Defines a Meme?.”, Smithsonian Institution, May 2011,

Grundlingh, L. “Memes as Speech Acts.” Social Semiotics, vol. 28, no. 2, Apr. 2018, pp. 147–168. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/10350330.2017.1303020.

Huntington, Heidi E. “Affect and effect of Internet memes: assessing perceptions and influence of online user-generated political discourse as media,” Colorado State University, 2017.

Opspe. “Memetic Communication.” Know Your Meme, 5 March 2013,

Sharma, Harshit. “Memes in Digital Culture and Their Role in Marketing and Communication: A Study in India.” Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture, vol. 9, no. 3, Nov. 2018, pp. 303–318. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1386/iscc.9.3.303_1.

Srivastawa, Vandana “Twitter User Pays Fitting Tribute Through Picture to Kapil Mohan, the Creator of Old Monk, Takes Jibe at Thums Up.” 10 Jan. 2018.

Zakem, Vera, Megan K. McBride, and Kate Hammerberg. “Exploring the utility of memes for US government influence campaigns.” Center for Naval Analyses Arlington United States, 2018.

ZestfulHydra. “me irl.” Reddit, Apr. 2019.


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