The Lifespan of Memes~

This too shall pass~

shallnot pass

Or will it????


So, in the course of working on my thesis, I’ve read a lot of articles and research studies about memes. Some articles focus on the spread and replication of memes through a system while others focus on the sociocultural impact of the meme and its semantic and communicative applications. Very boring stuff. Not the topic–the writing on the topic. It’s almost like mimetic researchers have something to prove…

Anyway, rather than bore you with some of those useful but admittedly snooze-worthy sources, I thought I’d share one of the more “fun” articles I came across in my research on memes. This article by Lauren Michele Jackson, published in The Atlantic, explores why some memes are more fit than others and tend to have a longer shelf-life (i.e. remain in the public consciousness longer). More, this article looks at “meme-death” and what elements a successful meme needs to have in order to propagate in or current social system.

Though not an academic article per se, Jackson does draw upon mimetic research to define the internet meme as well as to critique the antiquated definition (calling Dawkins (1976) concept “deliberately capacious”–which is fair). To Jackson, though, it seems more apt to define the current Internet meme as a kind of joke. Jackson states, “memes as they’re popularly discussed nowadays often index something much more specific—a phrase or set of text, often coupled with an image, that follows a certain format within which user adjustments can be made before being redistributed to amuse others. Also known as: a joke”. While memes often inspire humor and laughter, that is not the main reason for why Jackson compares the meme to a joke. It is the shared quality of jokes and memes to “uniquely and deliberately make depth inconsequential to their appreciation” that Jackson cites as the main reason for why the two mediums are comparable. Essentially, counter to every proud mimetic theorist out there, Jackson believes that the most defining quality of the meme is that its meaning is shallow. Or, at the very least, it does not matter if a meme means anything deep or profound; people are not thinking that hard about it and that is the point. As reiterated multiple times in this article: jokes just aren’t funny anymore once explained. Once a meme has been explained or becomes so popular that it is no longer popular, it dies.

Jackson’s thoughts on the meme and a meme’s life are quite interesting. While I disagree with her on the “shallowness” of meme’s meanings, I do find myself agreeing with the idea that more successful memes are ones whose meanings can be easily co-opted. Essentially, the template can be recycled and the meaning swapped out for another but the impact still remains. This, to me, indicates that there has to be some kind of inherent, deep-seated meaning in a template that underlies any superimposed nuance. That inherent meaning, I believe, is dependent upon the cultural context in which the meme is dependent. This is something Jackson seems to agree with me on. According to Jackson, “Memes capture and maintain people’s attention in a given moment because something about that moment provides a context that makes that meme attractive”. Once that context passes, it’s time for new memes. If a meme is not attuned to public sentiment at a certain time, it is no longer relevant.

Jackson ends her article by stating, “We create and pass on the things that call to our current experiences and situations. Memes are us.” Which I think it a very provocative idea. When memes are looked at as extensions of ourselves rather than disconnected means of communication–removed, to some degree, from us–I believe memes become easier to understand. At least, it’s easier to accept the complexity and multiplicity of this emergent medium when the human element is introduced into the conversation rather than viewed separately. The relationship between human and meme becomes more symbiotic than parasitic.

But, that’s just what I think.

Let me know if you have a different perspective. I’d love to hear it~


~Till next time~



  1. Great post!

    It still feels odd to read an analytical write-up on memes. I guess, it isn’t all that different from essays based on “the guy walks into a bar…” jokes. I think it’s actually impressive; finding an invisible function or a meaning behind things that people tend to be dismissive about is no easy task. I briefly skimmed through that article you’ve linked to, so I do not know if she delves into this more in-depth, but I always attributed the death of a meme to the inescapable time. I believe, the “You Shall Not Pass!” or “One Simply Does Not…” memes have lost their impact simply due to the LOTR being no longer relevant in current pop-culture. The Return of the King was released all the way back in 2003 (the Hobbit movies do not count). If the meme is born out of a popular movie or a television show, then its fate is pretty much linked to its relevance in pop-culture. As soon as the movie or the television show fades away from public conciseness, so does the meme. As you’ve already mentioned, memes serve as jokes and you need to understand the context in order to find it funny. I guess, in this particular case, even if you know the context… well, it isn’t necessarily a “fresh”context anymore. You know what I mean? Usually, some of these pop-culture reliant memes manage to live on because people just do not know when to let things go. They refuse to let those memes die because they identify themselves with those pop-culture references (oddly enough), instead of looking to the future for new ideas and “fresh” new memes. That being said… How DARE you put Chuck Norris on a tombstone? 😡

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey!

      I get what you mean about analyzing memes; my thesis is on memes and new digital content and I still feel weird analyzing them. I kind of liken it to how explaining a joke makes the joke less funny. (Though, personally, I find analyzing memes, which have been so thoroughly dismissed by authorities and deemed meaningless, to be quite interesting. It’s my own rebellion against academia and its gate-keeping ^.^)

      Anyway, you basically got the gist of Jackson’s article. She states, “Memes capture and maintain people’s attention in a given moment because something about that moment provides a context that makes that meme attractive.” Memes come down to context. They are these reflections of our context and of our experiences of the world. Once that context has passed, it’s time for new memes (though there has been some research done on so-called “sleeping beauty” memes which are memes that don’t experience initial popularity but do gain traction in the meme-sphere later on in their lives–that’s another article though lol). That said, Jackson does end her article on an interesting note: “We create and pass on the things that call to our current experiences and situations. Memes are us.” I think it’s interesting to consider memes as not just reflections of us but as representations of who we are in this moment. The ephemeral nature of memes seems suited to convey something as ever in flux as self identity. Idk though~ Those are just my thoughts on the matter!

      Thank you for your compliments and for sharing your thoughts!


      Liked by 1 person

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