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We Asked a 'Meme Scientist' What Makes a Meme Go Viral

Death by meme is the worst way to go, but is there a secret to becoming a successful random internet sensation?

All images via Know Your Meme

Death by meme is the worst way to go. Your comical, retweetable downfall is instantly archived for the world's convenient future access. This was the fate of Scumbag Steve, Antoine Dodson, the Interior Semiotics lady, and countless others who are added to the list on a weekly, even daily, basis. One of the more recent, high-profile additions is Australia's former speaker of the house, Bronwyn Bishop, who was turned into a meme last week thanks to a few too many taxpayer funded holidays and liberal use of government helicopters. While it's not surprising the former speaker got sledged on social media, it's impressive that so much of her takedown came in meme form.


Political scandals don't often make for great memes. But Choppergate, as it became known in Australia, is a different story. The meme consists of Bronwyn performing various mundane tasks from her preferred position—in a helicopter hundreds of feet above the earth.

Related: This Is What Happens When You Become a Meme

To the untrained eye, the emergence, spread, and disappearance of a meme might look completely random. It might seem, to that amateur's eye, that Brownyn's flight to meme notoriety was based on simple timing. But we wanted to know if there was something more going on, so we asked Ari Spool, a "meme scientist" at meme bible Know Your Meme, what makes a meme catch.

VICE: Hey, Ari. Why was the Choppergate meme such a hit, while other political scandals aren't? Is it simply a ridiculous situation with a strong visual hook?
Ari Spool: You're absolutely right. The visual aspect of the meme is probably more important than the content, because it needs to instantly be a joke. For most tax-based government scandals, the visuals would be bland, or perhaps repetitive—maybe an old politician sitting on a pile of money or something. Boring. But for this one, you could use these images of a helicopter walking a dog or picking up a bus, which are absurd.

You've seen a lot of different memes. Have you identified the secret recipe for success?
It's definitely not a science, but my personal opinion is that the formula often involves absurdity, and it also requires a certain inside-joke quality. If you're in America and you see a Choppergate meme without knowing the backstory, you might still think the image is funny, but you won't know exactly how funny it is to someone in Australia who understands the background. This gives people who created the meme a sort of ownership of the joke, which they are sharing with people who "get" it. I think people like humor that seems tailored directly to them, and memes, while they may appeal widely, have the appearance of an inside joke that everyone is sharing and owning and creating.


What's the deal with meme lifespan? Any idea why some memes take over Tumblr for a week (like stealing breadsticks or snails/snakes) while others (like forever alone) seem to never die?
It seems more related to the platform from which the meme originates. Things that originate on Tumblr seem to stay on Tumblr most of the time, which causes them to have a pretty short lifespan. The joke doesn't spread off of the Tumblr platform that frequently because it doesn't have that universal quality. Vine memes are even shorter; they often last less than two days, and it's possible to track Twitter hashtag memes to the hour.

A lot of the more eternal memes, like Forever Alone, come from 4chan or other communities where people have one foot in, one foot out. 4channers enjoy seeding the rest of the world with their inside jokes, like when they managed to get the anchors on this television station during the riots in Baltimore earlier this year to say things like "Jet fuel can't melt steel beams." When they do stuff like that, people Google what it means, and then they learn that the meme is supposed to spread in this subtextual fashion, and it gets distributed throughout all platforms.

Is there a king meme? I'd say Pepe the Frog, but I think a lot of people would disagree.
I have some metrics. According to our data, Slender Man is the most popular meme of all time on our site, followed by Forever Alone, then Zerg Rush, then Doge. Pepe doesn't even rank in the top 20, but he's growing. However, that's based on site visits, which can also indicate confusion—perhaps more people visit those pages because they see a mention of Slender Man online somewhere and they search for it because they aren't aware of what it means.


Certainly, the Slender Man criminal incidents influenced that meme's "popularity." So that statistic is a little like saying "what is the most Googled word?" and then asserting that it's the most used word in the English language; obviously, those two things are different.

Are there other ways to measure how popular a meme gets?
A meme's popularity might also be calculated by how many people create new versions of it. For that, I'd try to look at the largest image galleries on our site and how many sub-entries [new popular derivations] there are. If you calculate it that way, I'm pretty sure the most popular meme of all time is My Litttle Pony: Friendship Is Magic. This conceptualization also has issues, though: perhaps MLP is just the most popular meme among our users, and not in the world at large. Certainly, a high amount of people have no idea what a Bronie is.

Finally, what's your personal favorite meme?
I'm a huge Pepe fan; My boyfriend even sculpted me a real Pepe planter for my birthday. I also love the galleries of Mildly Interesting.

Thanks Ari.

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An earlier headline of this article misidentified Spool as the founder of Know Your Meme. She is, in fact, a "meme scientist." We regret the error.