Memes are multimodal signs in which images and texts are combined (Varis & Blommaert, 2015: 8). Due to its visibility, recognisability and multimodality, together with the fact that it is easy to create, a meme is able to shape and spread a socially constructed public discourse (Shifman, 2014: 4).

What is a meme?

The term 'meme' was coined in 1976 when Richard Dawkins wrote his seminal book 'The Selfish Gene'. According to Dawkins, memes were -analogous to genes - small cultural units of transmission that spread from person to person through copying. 

In common parlance, internet memes refer to image macros featuring a picture and superimposed text (usually in Impact font). Lolcats, Rage Faces and 'Not Sure If-' meme taken from the Futurama -show are popular examples. Memes can also be jokes, rumors, viedos and websites that spread from person to person via the Internet. The video of Gagnam style is a know example of a video meme. 

Whereas the first literature on memes focued on memes as 'diffused units', newer approcahces stress the collective dimension of memes. An internet meme, according to Shifman (2014), is: 

  1. a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which
  2. were created with awarenes of each other, and
  3. were circulated, imitated, and/or transofrmed via the Internet by many users. 

Memes can thus be understood “a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form; created with awareness of each other; circulated, imitated and transformed via the internet by many” (Phillips, 2016).Shifman refers to memes as socially constructed public discourses by which different voices and perspectives can be represented (Shifman, 2014: 9). The internet is a meeting place where different memes, which are basically venues for expressing opinions, can be displayed (Shifman, 2014: 149-150).      

Memes and Virals, what 's the difference?

To many people, memes and virals are synonyms. Analytically speaking, virals and memes have very common characteristics (fast diffusion accross networks, enhanced by social media, ...) but there are important differences. The main difference between memes and virals relate to variability. Whereas virals 'comprise a single cultural unit (such as a video, photo, or joke) that propagates in many copies, an internet meme is always a collection of texts.' (Shifman, 2014: 56). 

The difference between virals and memes is of course fluid. Many memes are adaptations of a viral video or image macro. Memes and virals are thus two ends of a dynamic spectrum. 


Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Shifman, L. (2014): Memes in Digital Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Phillips, (2016). 

Varis, P. & Blommaert, J. (2015): ‘Convivality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes and new social structures’, in: Multilingual Margins 2(1), 31-45.