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What’s a meme, and how should I pronounce it?

“Meme” rhymes with “team.” According to Wikipedia, a meme is an idea, behavior, or style that becomes a fad and spreads within a culture by means of imitation. It often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme. The word “meme” was coined in 1976.

Oh, you want to know what an internet meme is? Internet memes appeared in the mid-1990s and grew up with the internet. From the start, they were simple image files featuring a photo and a caption of some sort. Like everything online, the idea was to spread these images as widely as possible across the fast-growing web. Clever was better.

In the early days, memes were fairly tame. One popular series was created around demotivation—parodies of the black-bordered inspirational and motivational posters hanging in offices everywhere. But instead of words like “Leadership” in huge text, pictures of a lovely mountain range, and a pithy description of what leadership is, you’d find a word like “Procrastination,” a nothing photo, and an equally disparaging bit of text. Funny, right?

Nowadays, memes often have a very distinct look that consists of a picture (or a single frame from a film) and across the top and bottom, in black-outlined, condensed white text is a seemingly unrelated caption—unrelated, that is, until you get the joke. Often it’s a very short-lived joke because memes are almost always based on an event or person or phrase that’s popular at the moment.

Over time, memes have gotten nastier—vulgar, even—but every now and then you’ll come across one that is laugh-out-loud funny. As I’m writing this, an online search for “meme” and “fly” and “Pence” results in some hilarious reactions to an unscripted two-minute episode during a recent U.S. national event. Any subject matter is game.

At best, memes, in very few words and a single image, force us to take a less-than-serious look at our more-than-serious selves. At their worst, they are not, as they say, suitable for work (or anyplace else).

Interestingly, memes have gotten so popular and memers are apparently so underpaid that there’s a move underway to unionize. No joke.

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