A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that becomes a trend and spreads from person to person. If you are on social media at all, you have seen memes many times over. For example, one popular meme is the “Woman Yelling at a Cat” meme. It has Taylor Armstrong and Kyle Richards from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills on the left and Smudge the cat on the right with text on each side displaying what each is saying.

Memes. What are they and why do they go viral? 2

What are memes?

So where did the word “meme” come from? Meme was first mentioned by the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Back then, the use of the word was directed more towards things like graffiti, political cartoons, and the like. The word morphed as the internet and social media become popular. Merriam-Webster finally added a definition for social media in 2015 to refer to things that catch on through social media and become popular.

Why do they go viral?

We’ve all done it at some point. We see something. We like what we see and we quickly share it out with our social network. There is study after study available to go with the debate of why something goes viral. There are many marketing agencies with articles for brands selling them on how to go viral. I have read numerous view points on this – BUT I haven’t seen a consistent formula for what makes some go viral. There is no one set of rules that make something viral. There are some tips for what to consider if you want something to go viral. Those include:

  • Invoke emotions
  • Use of pictures over text
  • Influencers sharing

When people share things on social media, it seems to be tied to a need to be part of a larger group. But what they are sharing and why they are sharing all boils down to their emotions. Pictures get someone’s attention much faster than just text so they tend to get shared more often, however, if the text evokes an emotion it can still become viral. (However, it is less likely to be shared if it includes curse words.) According to one study done, if the emotion includes increased levels of arousal – like anxiety or joy – it is also more likely to be shared.

Sharing also includes the desire to interact with others for multiple reasons including showing support, making others laugh, spreading knowledge about a current topic, and feeling a connection with their friends. But sharing with just your close friends won’t make something viral. The key to becoming viral also includes the communities that participate in sharing it. Many times, it takes a key influencer with a larger audience to share the content before it becomes viral. Being able to reach a large mass of people is easier done with a large base of followers than organically through small bases of people.


The bottom line to becoming viral is that it requires a lot of factors, but if it doesn’t evoke some type of emotion that others will be able to relate to, the chances of it becoming viral are low. If you evoke an emotional that could help someone feel connected to their friends and an influencer feels it to, you just may end up being responsible for the next viral meme on social media.