definition of meme

A meme is visual shorthand for an idea or concept that replicates in the human brain, and moves from brain to brain. Most memes ridicule human behavior, iconic symbols, or social ideas. As such, they are the building blocks of culture.

Iconic products can be memes, like Levi’s jeans summarizes American culture. Mostly, though, memes refer to an image with a catchphrase, a GIF or a video clip. Typically a meme has a hook that anchors in the brain. Humor, exaggerations and controversy work well, as they trigger an emotional response.

Visuals can spread faster than any virus. They can have enormous staying power and may pop up years after their inception – often in a mutated form.


Not surprisingly, the ad industry and spin docters jumped on this bandwagon. Specialized meme farms are dedicated to producing targeted memes with the aim to go viral. Yet, some of the best memes came up spontaneously.

Bernie's mittens meme

Versatile Bernie Saunders picture was a meme magnet. His now-iconic mittens raised millions for a charity.


As visuals are so easily shared, memes can be potent manipulation tools, with the potential to sway public opinion on the issues they target.

If malicious memes target public figures, they can inflict severe reputational damage. They’re almost impossible to stamp out, once they’ve gone viral.

See als: memetic engineering.


The word meme is short for the Greek term mimeme, which means that what is replicated.