To meme or not to meme: The likability and ‘virability’ of memes


As the famous saying goes, “laughter is the best medicine.”

Dr. Leanna M. W. Lui

So it’s no surprise that humor is a great way to connect with different people and across various groups.

Memes are usually conveyed as images and texts that communicate ideas or thoughts. A meme, or “imitated thing” (translation from the Greek mimeme), was reappropriated from Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene; we can characterize “meme” with the word “gene” insofar as both self-replicate and are translated from person to person.

I am a big fan of memes. In fact, I can confidently say that one-third of my camera roll is dedicated to saved memes from Facebook, Instagram, and friends. Shameless to say, I’m also part of a few online groups dedicated to memes. They are relatable, as well as quick and fun ways to make light of an otherwise dull or upsetting situation.

Memes are contagious. From the moment they are created, they can be shared from one person to another, be edited or changed to adapt to the current situation, and become viral. They can be used to augment a conversation or replace the need for text communication entirely – in a sense, they are an entire language in and of themselves. They are constantly undergoing selection, repacking, and filtration. As a result, the most popular, successful, and, usually, relatable meme comes out on top, whereas the others fall behind and become “extinct.”

Memes generally adopt a form of word- or image-play that resonates well with people. The type of content varies from general lighthearted harmless animal humor to wry political and/or social commentary. They can be nearly universal or target specific groups (for example, students).

The popularity of memes depends on two factors: likability and “viralability.” Likability refers to how stimulating or engaging the content is, whereas “viralability” refers to the ability of the content to create a similar effect of user engagement across multiple people. Both factors are dynamic and can be quantified on the basis of the number of likes, shares, and/or comments.

In a content analysis of 1,000 memes on Facebook, researchers found that affiliative and aggressive humor styles were the most prevalent. Affiliative humor refers to a style of banter or joke that portrays others in a positive light, whereas aggressive humor achieves the opposite (that is, portrays others in a negative light). Interestingly, the type of humor that achieved the average most likes and shares was self-defeating humor (that is, disparaging one’s own situation in a negative perspective).

Self-defeating memes are suggested to have higher meme fitness. Meme fitness refers to the replicability of a meme. In this context, self-defeating memes have a unique ability to resonate with peoples’ thoughts and feelings in a sarcastic way and create laughter in contexts of general hardships (for example, failed relationships, academic hardships, or general life weaknesses). In a way, I’ve found that self-defeating memes offer a branch of support; to know that I am not going through certain problems alone, and that others can understand these difficulties, is comforting.

Memes can target emotional pain, neutralize the threat, and turn discomfort into a discourse of playfulness and warmth. Especially during times of great uncertainty, a bit of banter and wry humor may be just what we need to make light of difficult situations.

Leanna M.W. Lui, HBSc, completed an HBSc global health specialist degree at the University of Toronto, where she is now an MSc student.

A version of this article first appeared on

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