What Makes a Meme Go Viral?


Could anyone have predicted centuries ago that William Shakespeare would become one of the literary touchstones in the Western world? Or whether paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, or Leonardo da Vinci would hang in museums around the globe? Or even if a British musical group with a misspelled name of a bug would become the most popular ban of all time?

Probably not. So trying to predict which Internet memes will become viral is next to impossible as well. That said, we can make headway on this problem by exploring some of the similarities of viral memes.

Memes Before the Internet

Contrary to the belief of people under 30, memes did exist long before computers did; the invention of the World Wide Web only made the sharing of these memes drastically simpler. In fact, Harry Frees was photographing cats dressed in funny outfits over a century ago. The iconic Uncle Sam meme was created in 1916, and even video memes like the 3D “Dancing Baby” were popularized prior to large-scale usage of cyberspace.

What Viral Memes Have in Common

Again, it’s very difficult to forecast whether a specific meme will go viral on the Web. But upon examination of the many memes that have gone viral, several distinct traits emerge. These include:

  • Social connectivity – They foster a sense of connection with the rest of the Internet community.
  • Dialogue ignition – They get people talking and sharing opinions about them.
  • “Gossip need” satisfaction – They appeal to people’s desire to gossip, which accelerates how often they are shared with others.
  • Personality expression – They say something about the personality of the people who choose to share it.
  • Trendiness – They identify with current trends, fads, events, or even other viral memes.
  • Humor – Obviously, they are frequently funny, goofy, and surprising; these are the hallmarks of humor.
  • Sensationalism – They portray something awe-inspiring, breathtaking, or emotionally appealing.
  • Far-fetchedness – They are completely unexpected and/or defy rationalization.
  • Schadenfreude-ish – They appeal to individuals’ sense of karma, fate, or consequences of unwise choices.
  • Relatability – They are easily identifiable with large segments of the population.

Not only do viral memes share common qualities, but there are also similarities in how they behave once they are unleashed in cyberspace. Here are six of these traits.

  1. Shareability is correlated with its level of interest among Web users. This isn’t rocket science: if people are interested in the topic of a meme, they’re more likely to share it with others.
  2. Past behavior is predictive of future behavior. If it resembles something that was viral in the past, a meme is more likely to go viral itself. Again, not a huge leap in reasoning.
  3. Competitiveness correlates with success. This is a bit less intuitive. But a meme whose increase in virulence is correlative with a drop in popularity of other memes tends to experience lasting success.
  4. Peaking too early is bad. A meme that experiences a sudden spike in shareability early on in its “lifetime” doesn’t tend to have a lot of long-term staying power.
  5. There’s strength in numbers. For some reason, memes that are similar in nature tend to be equally successful; therefore, a meme is more likely to become viral if it is comparable to another meme.
  6. It doesn’t matter who shares them. There is no correlation between the status of meme sharers and their penchant to become viral. So celebrities, public figures, or web experts don’t have any additional power in determining a meme’s virulence.

If filmmakers knew exactly what made a movie popular, they would be able to churn out only box office smashes. The same is true with memes; if determining their success were a science, then almost every meme would go viral. But in both cases, creators of these art forms can only figure out the components which make up success – and then hope for the best.

3 Comments + Add Comment

  • Thank you Chris! This is pretty good! I do memes from time to time for a couple of facebook pages!

  • Interesting. I have read several reviews about meme’s and how they can help generate traffic to a website but have not really used them myself. After reading this post, i am beginning to think maybe it is something that i should try. After all, their is no harm in trying right 🙂

    Thanks for putting up this article. Will really take a serious look into this.

    • Sounds great Fusion, let us know how it goes!

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