Whether it’s Chuck Norris roundhouse kicking the universe into existence or a video of a cat on a piano, the world of Internet memes is an unpredictable place where almost anything can go viral. While viral Internet memes are still a relatively new phenomenon, we’ll look at some of the most popular ones and try to classify them into their five main types: phrasal memes, pic memes, video memes, interactive memes and promotional memes.

A meme is an element of culture that is passed from one individual to another, usually through imitation. While it’s very hard to say what special element makes some memes go viral, it is possible to look back on the ones that had the biggest impact on popular culture.

Phrasal Memes: When Sayings Catch On

Because the definition of an Internet meme is so broad, anything that spreads quickly and widely online may fall into this category. The first Internet memes were arguably the text-based ones that are frequently used in chat, such as :-), :-P, :-0, lol, brb and so on. These memes spread through repetition and imitation, just as certain jokes, phrases and song verses spread through print, radio and television prior to the Internet.

Phrasal memes are still alive and well on the Internet. “All your base are belong to us,” “Leroy Jenkins,” and many more have exploded across the Internet - and even made the jump to mainstream media.

Chuck Norris facts are one of the more popular of the phrasal memes. It began in 2005 and peaked with the release of print books chronicling the actor’s many (fictional) super-human abilities, including such gems as:
  • “Chuck Norris can start and stop a wildfire with a roundhouse kick.”
  • “There is no evolution, only species that Chuck Norris has decided to let live.”
Internet memes based around interesting, shocking and often hilarious photos and photoshopped images regularly make the rounds through email and blog posts. These are often called pic memes. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint the first pic meme, the longevity of the ubiquitous LOLcats - a basic label for pictures of cats in comedic situations, adorned with humorous (and poorly spelled) captions -suggests that pic memes are worth exploring.

Pic memes have evolved far beyond the feline realm, however, and now memes include the Cigar Guy from golf tournaments, floating Chinese politicians, allegedly stoned dogs and many, many more. The main characteristic of this type of meme is that it relies on a strange or humorous photo, which is sometimes accompanied by a caption.

Video Memes: Star Wars Kid and a Dancing Baby

Video memes have come to dominate Internet sites like YouTube, which offer a constant stream of new, user-generated video. The Dancing Baby, which was designed to show off 3D rendering, became one of the first animated hits to spread across the Internet and mainstream media. It was quickly followed by a man enthusiastically dancing the Numa Numa, a kid doped up after the dentist, a preteen emulating the “Star Wars” character Darth Maul, and many more viral videos.

Youtube, Facebook and Twitter help to popularize these videos in a very short time – often leading to unwanted fame for the subjects of these videos. Compounding the embarrassment is the proliferation of blogs, including the epic fail blog and fail blogs, which document boneheaded slip-ups and archive them forever. If there is one thing worse than looking like an idiot, it is looking like an idiot in a viral video.

Interactive Memes: Rickroll’d Again

Unlike the previous memes we’ve covered, interactive memes require the participation of a crowd. Again, it’s hard to declare an origin for this meme, but being Rickroll’d is definitely one that many will remember. Rickrolling, the false linking to or splicing of videos to Rick Astleys “Never Gonna Give You Up” music video caught Internet users off guard at first, but has now become somewhat of a nostalgic touchstone – perhaps like an Internet version of Woodstock.

What most interesting about interactive memes is that they have borrowed from many previous meme types by using the mimicry that has come to be seen in memes such as planking and heads in freezers. Video memes were also been impacted by this trend of building on previous incarnations of a meme and expanding it into new areas.

Promotional Memes: Young Darth Vader

Popularity and a huge volume of views is, of course, going to attract the attention of advertisers. Since Internet memes first started catching on, advertisers have been looking for a way to make their product or commercial go viral. The opportunity to profit from Internet memes was originally exposed by the blatantly stated “million dollar homepage” put together by Alex Tew in 2005. Tew raised the promised million dollars by selling pixel ads on the page as it gained popularity.

Since those heady days, advertisers have tried to capture Internet enthusiasm. Successful campaigns – as measured be views – include Volkswagen’s young Darth Vader, Reebok’s Terry Tate Office Linebacker, Budweiser’s Wassup, and many more. The success of these campaigns in terms of the companies’ bottom lines is not entirely clear, but the ubiquity of these campaigns suggests that they may have some value, at least for product visibility.

The Future of Memes

With the changing nature of Internet technology and trends, almost any article on memes is doomed to be out of date by the time it is published. By classifying these memes, however, it is clear that many factors are playing a role in the evolution of Internet memes. The trend seems to be toward interaction with Internet phenomena rather than the passive consumption that marked the memes of the past. However, because constant change is really the only constant in Internet memes, it’s virtually impossible to predict the trends that will influence the next viral online phenomenon.