How Memes Go Viral
I tend to get extremely obsessed about some topic for a while and then lose all interest in it before jumping to the next one. One obsession phase I had during high school was designing the ‘perfect economic system’. I now believe there is no such thing, and any pursuit of an ideal utopia will probably bite us back in the butt. Nonetheless, this phase led me to some interesting rabbit holes, including one about Karl Marx’s theory of human nature, which led me down a further hole to Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism. According to Kant, the power of human imagination is paramount in shaping our perception of the world. He claims that our thoughts and ideas are the building blocks of our reality.
I read a Bayesian take on this on a reddit post once that I really like and will now quote:
“Imagine, if you will, your mind as a pile of sand. Each grain is a belief about reality, and there is a steady stream of sand falling on top of the pile, settling based on how impactful it was to your sensibilities. This means that each grain of sand is weighted by how much faith you have in it. In such a model, there is no such thing as knowledge, just rigid and fluid beliefs. Thus, the pile is constructing a framework that is based on probability and can update itself based on shifts in the pile.”
We live in the condensation of our imagination. Ideas are the only inputs we get to interpret the infinite data points of everyday life. We are influenced directly by our families and politicians, and indirectly by the creators of the Proto-Sinaitic script.
Ideas are self-replicating units of information that use human communication as a means to transmit and propagate. But what if, far from being some abstract notion, ideas were literally alive, programmed by the same kill-or-be-killed incentive mechanisms as the rest of us? Such beings would be similar to parasitic viruses, using our neurons as hosts to escape their conceptual abyss and enter the world of material existence. And like any other virus, ideas would want to go viral. Like any other life form, they crave reproduction.
As such, social media platforms have become their warzone, an epidemiologic battlefront for procreation and virality. Memes, in this sense, can be viewed as the vehicles of transportation of ideas into the world of social media.
The rest of this article will be dedicated to analyzing the optimal tactics used in meme wars.
Memes want to spread quickly and widely. For some, it’s a matter of quality, for others, quantity. Memes that target quality are often directed at a niche subset of individuals. It represents some new mix of concepts that only a particular subgroup can understand. This can range from national memes to game-specific, to a meme I once saw about formicophilia that had too many layers of kinky verbiage for me to understand fully, but it involved a guy slithering a worm into the tip of his thing and gave me nightmares for months.
The other types of memes are those that just want to go for the quantity of exposure. They’re the ones that usually have less thought put into them, are more likely to be cringe, and ALWAYS END UP CLOGGING YOUR FEED BECAUSE THEY GET REPOSTED EVERYWHERE FOR NO APPARENT REASON. Yet, as far as meme-ing goes, they get the job done.
Nevertheless, both categories target the same fundamental receptors of our dopamine-yearning minds. A viral meme needs to stand out. A tried and tested strategy to accomplish this is to include something completely outrageous or taboo designed to grab someone’s attention. This tactic is utilized by most ‘rich guru’ scam artists you see–The Andrew Tates and Grant Cardones of the world.
However, memes that require too much cognitive processing can be a turn-off for viewers. In fact, a key factor in the spread of memes is cognitive fluency. This refers to how easy an idea is to process. Research has shown that ideas that are easy to process are more likely to be shared and remembered. Humor is also a vital element in this regard. If a brand or meme is funny, it can increase its chances of success. Go check @slimjim on Instagram for an example of a successful brand admin that utilizes the tactics of niche memes, taboo, cognitive fluency, and humor.
Still another factor that contributes to the birth of a meme is its ability to tap into the cultural context of a society. This mostly concerns the ‘quality/niche’ type mentioned earlier. Memes that reference popular culture, events, or trends that are relevant to people tend to be more successful. This is because they provide a sense of belonging and shared understanding among people, which makes them more likely to share and spread the meme.
The science behind the spread of memes is rooted in social psychology and cognitive science. Studies have shown that people are more likely to share and spread information that confirms their beliefs and values. This is known as confirmation bias. Memes that tap into this bias are more likely to be shared and spread among people with similar beliefs and values.
In other words, to create a successful meme one must hit the right vibe at the right time, and that is very hard to fake, as people are quick to notice inauthenticity.
Memes are powerful tools for spreading ideas that shape our reality. We are what we think and our thoughts are heavily influenced by whatever ideas we consume. Understanding the science behind the spread of memes can hopefully provide you with the necessary knowledge to avoid the ideas you don’t want to influence you or use to spread your own ideas. If you want my advice though, this article really isn’t worth it. The best memes are the ones that feel most authentic, and being funny can’t be taught. Also, chill out. I’m a paranoid person but you don’t need to be one too. We don’t need to be constantly overthinking everything we’re consuming. Even though it is true that we are easily influenced by other people’s ideas, I’ve found that going with the flow is always better than trying to control every aspect of who we are.
Alter, A. L., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2009). Easy on the mind, easy on the wallet: The roles of familiarity and processing fluency in valuation judgments. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16(5), 961-966.
Berger, J. (2013). Contagious: How to Build Word of Mouth in the Digital Age. Simon and Schuster.
Fisher, K. (2019). The Psychology of Internet Memes. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-digital-self/201910/the-psychology-internet-memes
Weinberger, M. G., & Gulas, C. S. (1992). The impact of humor in advertising: A review. Journal of Advertising, 21(4), 35-59.
Wu, F., & Huberman, B. A. (2007). Novelty and collective attention. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(45), 17599-17601.