Cyber Psychology Part I – Why the Best Memes Go Viral

Unless you have been hiding under a rock of late, you’ve seen a social media-spread Internet meme or two; the hilarious, the shocking and the big, fat fails. Finally, the complex science of modelling and investigating our use of Internet memes is beginning to bloom, revealing not only how to make memes go viral and spread like wildfire on social media, but also what memes tell us about human culture both on and offline.

What is a meme?

We aren’t talking about memes in general here, i.e. a central component of cultural evolution expressed in any communicable format that may be passed on through imitation (e.g. a word, phrase, action, video, image, or idea), described by Dawkins as a ‘unit of cultural transmission’.

We’re talking about a more specific subset of this near-infinite world of memes, Internet memes. An Internet meme can be any concept or idea, packaged in any online content format (from email to video), that spreads “virally” within a social network. The most well-known Internet meme format comprises an image combined with a witty caption.

Virally popular memes may make regular appearances on our newsfeeds for months or even years, such as the Ryan Gosling or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend memes. Having high ‘mutation’ rates, the most popular memes are typically recreated with fresh images and text hundreds of times over, keeping them alive online for longer. Sadly, despite millions of memes being created online each day, the vast majority of memes die a rapid and lonely death.

Here is a rundown of key findings from some of the first science research getting to the nitty gritty in understanding why most memes bomb out of the popularity contest, while select special memes go viral, infecting the far distant corners of the socialsphere.

Best memes finding #1: Memory makes familiarity key

A basic premise for how to make a meme to fly well within a social network is that the general concept is familiar to the group.

One of the earliest studies used Twitter as their model social network to investigate competition between Internet memes. They found that users are more likely to retweet memes about which they posted about in the past.

Similarly, a recent PhD thesis submitted at Texas A&M University extended meme familiarity into the network space. They concluded that memes that are consistent with group content or norms spread faster than memes that are inconsistent with the group content or norms.

Application: In making a good meme for a target audience, make the meme based on similar subject matter to what they already regularly share. Many viral memes make the most of this familiarity effect by making a meme feel a bit like an inside joke, that a larger number of internet users are in on.

Best memes finding #2: Limited meme attention makes originality key

The Twitter-based study made another important discovery, collectively and individually, our attention for Internet memes is finite. There is only so much attention for memes to go around, and therefore the number of memes that can be popular at one time is limited too.

This indirectly suggests that the continuous injection of new memes into cyberspace kills off old memes of the past. Think of it like the top 10 music charts. Only so many songs can be on the top. Ultimately a new song becoming a hit means that one of last season’s top tunes, no matter how good, simply has to go.

So, how to make memes that capture this limited meme attention span?

A recent study published in Scientific Reports proved that the most popular memes grab this attention and thrive on social networks if their characteristics make them unique. The authors concluded that one of the central concepts driving meme success is meme similarity, in this case the meme’s image, the meme’s name and the meme’s text topics:

…to be successful a meme needs to be easily distinguishable from the other memes and it has to either create a new cultural niche, or occupy a vacant one.

Ultimately, in creating the perfect meme, despite familiarity being key, this should not be at the expense of originality. In other words, its worth considering boosting meme originality through using a previously unused meme image, a fresh name/identifier or innovative text. Ideally, a fresh new meme will hijack limited attention resources and climb to the top spot in the competitive world of memes.

Best memes finding #3: Target low status network members

This one may come as a shocker, and certainly warrants further investigation.

Life experience and the science of mimicry and imitation suggest that information is more likely to spread faster when it comes from high status members of a group, i.e. the top influencers. This is largely due to lower status members being more likely to mimic high status members and therefore agree with and then share this information.

This is what was hypothesized for Internet memes in the aforementioned PhD thesis. Yet surprisingly results did not support the hypothesis.

Contrary to the expected, memes started by low status individuals (i.e. those having a higher number of responses to threads they themselves started and a higher number of responses to comments on threads started by others) spread faster than memes started by moderate or high status individuals (i.e. those having those having a lower number of responses to threads they themselves started and a lower number of responses to comments on threads started by others).

One evidence-based explanation for these results is that low status individuals are more likely to embrace fringe ideas earlier on in a meme’s rise to stardom in comparison with when high status individuals join the show. This fits well with other meme research, where the more original memes that are found at the fringe of meme similarity space have greater potential for going viral (see finding 2 above) than those that are less original. This suggests that low status members of a network may be the key drivers of Internet meme evolution.

An alternative and perhaps concurrent explanation is that lower status members are also more likely to ‘mutate’ the original meme, helping boost its mass appeal and extension of the meme into other online communities and networks.

Application: Rather than targeting high status members, targeting low status individuals may be a more worthwhile starting point in devising how to make an original meme go viral.

Stay tuned for the next article in the Internet Psychology series, dangerously delving into the mysterious and dark mind of the Internet Troll…


Coscia M (2014). Average is boring: how similarity kills a meme’s success. Scientific reports, 4 PMID: 25257730

Weng, L., Flammini, A., Vespignani, A., & Menczer, F. (2012). Competition among memes in a world with limited attention Scientific Reports, 2 DOI: 10.1038/srep00335

Mazambani, G.T. (2015). The Psychology of Social Networks: The Creation, Spread, and Extinction of Memes in Virtual Communities. PhD thesis accessed online 28 April 2016.

Image via PeteLinforth / Pixabay.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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