There’s a tremendous irony that exists at the core of meme culture. A web-savvy generation of people looking to use the online world as a platform for instant fame will spend countless hours attempting to piece together the right combination of funny piece of media and clever, irreverent quip to launch their meme to popular, widespread recognition. For all that effort, though, some of the best, most iconic memes on the internet were borne out of completely unintentional circumstances.
Among the hundreds of thousands of photos shared around the web and on social media sites each day, there are bound to be some pretty good, interesting and noteworthy ones. Some pictures can even reveal a compelling nugget that the photographer behind the image never realized was there. It is these instances that can produce the greatest memes, where the photo depicts something that seems unplanned and spontaneously remarkable rather than forced and manipulated.
That being said, there is no perfect, established formula to create a popular meme. A point of cultural and social media-fueled fascination over the past decade or so, memes are complex for the variety of ways in which they can capture public fascination and amusement, but also for their multi-faceted, open-ended nature. The confusion around memes stems from a broad, loose definition that enables it to be applied to a photo, video, person, fictional character, quote, idea, GIF or just about anything the endlessly creative web can dream up. Memes, popular ones anyway, are limited only by the expectation that they speak to a wide and cross-cultural populace united by the internet.
Today, memes have changed the way we consume all media, particularly that which is live. A slip of the tongue at an awards show lives on in infamy, a la John Travolta’s ‘Adele Dazeem’ malapropism at the 2014 Oscars. Even local news features can grow into global phenomena if they produce an internet-friendly sound byte or clip. Late night talk show hosts, such as Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden, have come to curb some of their segments and the over-all organization of their shows around content primed to go viral the next day.
Not all memes are borne out of origins that are as easily recognizable and widely seen as national or even local media. For as quickly as trending internet memes can spread, they often emerge modestly from marginal pockets of the internet like message boards and chat rooms, including 4Chan and Reddit. Some of the internet’s biggest memes had been cycled around online long before they exploded into pop culture awareness. This brings up the two biggest questions surrounding memes: what makes them popular and how did they come to be in the first place.
We may never know why some meme’ed messages, such as Bill Murray’s face and “Keep Calm and … On”, are found to be so compelling. But as we continue to wrap our heads around this internet craze, we can take a glimpse into 10 of the most popular online memes and the stories behind them to see what all the fuss is about.