Merriam-Webster's editors officially added an entry for a "meme" in May 2015, calling it "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture," or "an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online, especially through social media."
Memes inherently come with an air of an inside joke, intriguing some while confusing others. A team of scientific researchers from Cyprus University of Technology, University College London, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Boston University, and King's College London came together in September 2018 to research the internet's most popular memes.
Apart from assembling a definitive list of the world's favourite memes, the academic study also explored the influences (both positive and negative) that memes have on different communities. Some memes are created just for fun by creative or bored internet users, but others are made with the explicit intention of going viral to promote political ideas.
Online forums, social media platforms, and messaging apps like Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp are responsible for a majority of meme infections, and with the constant posting and sharing, finding the source of an original meme is easier said than done.
Stacker hunted through internet resources, pop culture publications, and databases like Know Your Meme to find 50 different memes and what they mean. While the almost self-replicating nature of these vague symbols can get exhausting, memes, in their essence, can also bring people closer together—as long as they have internet access.
"Distracted boyfriend" first entered the meme game in 2017, when a Turkish Facebook group used a stock photo of a man walking with a girl while checking out another girl to make a joke about Phil Collins. The meme continues to be relevant today while being used as inspiration for pop culture references, such as this one involving Antoni Porowski (from "Queer Eye") and then-new celebrity couple Kate Beckinsale and Pete Davidson at a New York Rangers game.
Danganronpamemer // imgflp
In 2017, when a number of posters on Tumblr and 4chan started bragging about their brain sizes, it quickly turned into a meme. Photos of different-sized brains are paired with "smart" sounding words until they expand into a fully enlightened stage. One of the first manifestations of the "expanding brain" meme came from the who-whom-whomst progression of words that seemingly makes one sound smarter.
Supl // The Gateway
Young Thug at computer
Back in 2018, a photo surfaced of the rappers Young Thug and Lil Durk staring at a computer screen while working on new music in the studio. The internet quickly began finding humorous (and fabricated) explanations for what the two were so intently concentrating on, everything from the rappers planning an elaborate heist to playing old-school games like Minesweeper.
First World problems
While the "First World" terminology has been around for a while, the hashtag #firstworldproblems reached its peak in popularity on Twitter in 2011 after Buzzfeed posted a series of memes about problems experienced by privileged people from wealthy countries. The meme almost always depicts an attractive person looking sad, with a caption explaining his or her First World frustrations.
Change my mind
After Steven Crowder, a conservative podcaster, posted a photo of himself in 2018 sitting at a desk with a sign saying "Male privilege is a myth: Change my mind," it was almost too easy for the internet to begin making fun of him with memes of their own. Memes ranged from simply changing the words on the sign to elaborate photoshops.
PassedMyPrime // reddit
Drake has been the subject of several different memes throughout his long career. His 2015 single "Hotline Bling" was one of the biggest songs of the year, and when the music video came out featuring Drake dancing in a brightly lit cube structure the memes began to accumulate even more. Since then the internet has memed everything from his Twitter posts to school portraits.
Cat Graffam // Twitter
Is this a...?
The "is this a pigeon?" meme first rose to popularity in 2011 after Tumblr posted a photo from a Japanese animated show of an android mistaking a butterfly for a pigeon. Most of the memes derived from the photo use the subjects to express modern confusion or paranoia.
Real name Google searches
"Real name Google searches" is a meme that gained popularity in 2018 using the generic Google template to depict made-up names for popular celebrities (usually those who go by aliases). According to Know Your Meme, it first appeared by showing the rapper Lil Pump's name as "Lilliam Pumpanikel" and only got more ridiculous from there.
"Futurama Fry" is one of the most relatable memes on the web. One popular meme, which began in 2011, shows the character Fry from the animated show "Futurama" with eyes narrowed, thinking about contradicting questions, usually referring to modern times or sarcasm. Another is a generic photo with the same character holding cash and yelling, "Shut up and take my money!" used when someone finds the description of a product on the internet particularly appealing.
Weird flex but OK
The phrase "weird flex but OK" is used when someone brags about something that others would find awkward or just plain irrelevant. The phrase began showing up on the internet in 2017 and has continued to be used in response to awkward boasts. One of the most popular uses of the meme was during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in 2018 after he used his high school virginity as an argument.
Evieliam // Wikimedia Commons
This is fine
Taken out of a 2013 web comic strip called "On Fire," this image showing a human-like dog enjoying his coffee while his house is burning down has seemingly become more and more relatable every year. The image is rarely altered, simply attached to troubling or hard-to-grasp news.
Bernie Sanders asking for financial support
The second presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders spawned a meme that transcended political ideology and divisions. A December 2019 fundraising video from Sanders featured the Democratic candidate outdoors and slowly approaching the camera as he addressed supporters directly, saying: "I am once again asking for your financial support." The internet quickly jumped on the quote, applying it to situations like asking your parents for money, or even replacing the phrase "financial support" with something more absurd.
The iconic green puppet has stolen the hearts of millions on the "Muppet Show" since the 1970s, but the internet meme sensation didn't begin until 2014. Most notable memes include Kermit sipping on some tea with passive-aggressive text followed by "but that's none of my business," as well as another with a hooded Kermit formatted to show good versus evil thoughts.
John Lodder // flickr
From "I need dis" to "Nyan Cat," there really isn't one subject that encompasses the internet's love of memes better than cats. Since the 2000s when "keyboard cat" first made an appearance on YouTube, people have been posting funny images of felines paired with hilarious text.
Also known as the "squat and squint" meme, the photo showing a squinting woman staring at something in the distance actually came from an outtake of an Instagram shot that went viral in March 2018. Since then, the picture has been applied to any circumstance that the poster finds unbelievable.
Agatha Harkness winks
The first streaming show from Marvel Studios was able to leave a mark on pop culture instantaneously, thanks to actress Kathryn Hahn. "WandaVision" pays homage to American sitcoms over the past several decades, with Hahn's Emmy-nominated role as Agatha (or "Agnes") playing the trope of the quirky and noisy next-door neighbour. In the third episode of the 2021 miniseries, Agatha delivers a funny and exaggerated wink, which viewers used to express sarcasm or obvious deception in memes.
AndreDThompson // Twitter
Also known as "evil Patrick" or "savage Patrick," this meme takes a still of the character Patrick from "SpongeBob Squarepants" with a menacing look in his eyes from a 1999 episode. Twitter got a hold of it around February 2018 and started using the image along with an explanation of bad behaviour or motives.
PaulFaire/TheThings // TheThings.com
By age 35...
Following a 2018 MarketWatch article that implied an unrealistic amount of savings one should have in their 30s, people on Twitter began responding to the article by sharing all the other things you should ideally have by age 35 (from the hilariously true to the ridiculous). Advice on avocado toast, Pokémon, and cutlery choices followed.
Two guys on a bus
A 2013 cartoon image by Brazilian artist Genildo Ronchi suddenly became a widely used meme in 2021—featuring two people sitting on different sides of the same bus, one is looking sadly at a rock wall, while the other is smiling at the sunny view from his window. Many have used the illustration to show two different perspectives on the same issue or situation, with one clearly better than the other.
MILOSLAVvonRANDA // WW Interweb
The 1987 film "Predator" starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers contained within it what could be the manliest handshake of all time, and in 2007 it began gaining traction on YouTube. After multiple videos and fan art paying tribute to the handshake became popular in the following years, object-labeling memes using the handshake as a background to agreements began to arise in 2018.
There have been several memes revolving around the tech entrepreneur Elon Musk throughout the years, especially following his Twitter request for "dank memes" in October 2018. One of the most popular Musk memes uses an image of the billionaire smoking during a podcast interview.
tamouq // reddit
"Mocking SpongeBob" uses an image from a 2012 episode of "SpongeBob SquarePants" to make fun of another person's opinion on the internet. The earliest uses of this meme came in 2017 on Twitter, quickly gaining traction and becoming one of the most popular (and effective) ways to insult someone online.
tcgreywold // imgflip
In 2016, a British mockumentary starring actor Kayode Ewumi called "Hood Documentary" was uploaded onto YouTube by BBC. Soon after, people on the internet began using a screen-grabbed image of Ewumi pointing to his temple like he had a good idea to joke about bad decisions and poor thinking.
Kyle MacLachlan // Twitter
Thank u, next
When Ariana Grande released her single "Thank U, Next" about her ex-boyfriends in early 2019, fans quickly began creating memes out of the lyrics. Aside from just using the title phrase to demonstrate being over something and moving on, the internet also used the lyrics to compare three things that taught them love, patience, and pain to mimic the chorus.
lil uzi hurt // Twitter
Let's get this bread
People on the internet use the "let's get this bread" meme ironically (usually it is slang for earning money) to make fun of people or themselves for trying too hard to earn money. In 2018, the meme exploded into everything from mockeries of the gluten-intolerant to Olive Garden references.
Comics and Memes
A screen-grabbed image of Pikachu looking surprised from an episode of "Pokémon" caught the attention of Tumblr in late 2018. For the next few months, the image blew up when people started using it as a meme for doing something with an obvious outcome.
Condescending Willy Wonka
The meme uses an image of Gene Wilder's 1971 "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" character to say something patronizing or mock someone. First used on Gizmodo and Tumblr as early as 2011, the image has become a common condescending response online.
Pink Diamond // Pinterest
Jason Momoa sneaking up on Henry Cavill
Jason Momoa and Henry Cavill began a friendship while filming "Justice League" in 2016, and when a photo was taken of Momoa sneaking up on Cavill on the red carpet the same year, it quickly went viral. On the last day of 2017, a Facebook account posted a meme using the image, labeling Momoa as "2018." The meme gained popularity throughout the following months as people labeled the two as different things creeping up on each other.
sailorfemme // Twitter
In yet another SpongeBob SquarePants meme, "tired SpongeBob" uses an image from a 1999 episode where the character is leaning against a rock, naked and out of breath. Twitter began using the screengrab as an attachment to tweets around March 2018 about being exhausted.
Classical art memes
There is a lot of unique classical art out there, so of course the internet has to find the most hilarious and wacky pieces to turn into memes. While art-related videos and other online art parodies can be traced back to 2004, the more recognizable memes gained popularity starting in 2013.
World's most interesting man
Most people will recognize the "world's most interesting man" (played by actor Jonathan Goldsmith) from the Dos Equis beer commercials that began in 2006. The meme usually uses the image of Goldsmith as a well-dressed gentleman with an adaptation of his catchphrase "I don't always X, but when I do, I Y" and began to gain popularity as early as 2010.
Stumpy // Twitter
Guy blinking nervously
One of the most popular memes of 2017, "guy blinking nervously," is usually used in GIF form to demonstrate bafflement and being caught unaware. The GIF initially came from a clip of a video producer when his co-worker said something inappropriate accidentally.
Hard to swallow pills
The "hard to swallow pills" meme uses two stock photos from WikiHow that were first posted to the internet in August 2017. It didn't take long for a Redditor to photoshop the image of the pill bottle to read "hard to swallow pills" and use it as a meme to illustrate a difficult truth.
TheStarVenge // reddit
Who would win?
The internet has taken the childhood game of "who would win" to a whole new level with this meme. Used to pose hypothetical battles between two opposing subjects, the "who would win" meme is said to have begun in 2014 when a 4chan user posted the meme using two video games as opponents.
In 2022, "Venom" spin-off "Morbius" hit movie theatres. While the Jared Leto-starring film was a critical and box office bomb, it became a meme phenomenon. Leto takes the role of Morbius, a villain from the Spider-Man comics; the character is relatively obscure yet was marketed as "a new Marvel Legend" by Sony Pictures. The low quality of the film led to a movement where moviegoers ironically supported it online, even making up quotes such as "It's Morbin' Time" and streaming the entire film on Twitch.
Ever since the show "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" first aired in 2007, people fell in love with watching the family's antics. They have all been the subject of a huge number of memes, with some of the most popular ones using screenshots from the show (usually of a meltdown or overreaction).
An image of a man playing Uno with a large number of cards in his hand became the basic template for several memes in early 2020. Usually, the meme begins with the option of doing a task or drawing 25 Uno cards, with the picture of the man with several cards serving as the punchline. Meme creators would use this template to comically express things they would never want to do, even at a high cost.
toxic_ideology // reddit
Pepe the Frog is a fictional character that first appeared in a 2005 comic and has gone through multiple transformations since then. Starting out as a positive meme known as "feels good man" in 2008, Pepe was edited into a more sad or angry meme a few years later. By 2015, what was initially intended to symbolize a peaceful way of life by the artist became twisted by several hate groups causing the image to be added to the Anti-Defamation League's database of hate symbols in 2016.
Crying Michael Jordan
Taken from an image of the famous athlete's emotional speech during his 2009 induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, this meme is usually used to convey a fan's disappointment when his particular team loses or performs poorly. The meme has been around since first appearing on MemeCrunch in 2012 and gained an official fan page on Tumblr in 2015. Jordan has reportedly found the entire fad pretty funny.
*Slaps roof of car*
"Slaps roof of car" can be traced back to a 2014 tweet of a ridiculous car salesman conversation, which started blowing up in 2016 after being paired with an illustrated stock image of a car salesman showing off a car. The meme has seen many photoshopped variations but usually uses the phrase "This bad boy can fit so much X in it."
Awkward little girl
Also known as "side-eyeing Chloe," this meme can be used in pretty much any awkward situation. The original photo came from a video of a little girl giving an unimpressed and hesitant look after being told about a surprise trip to Disneyland in 2013.
99flamey1 // imgur
Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket
Just about every "SpongeBob SquarePants" fan knows about the intense rivalry between the Krusty Krab and the Chum Bucket restaurants, but the former usually reigns supreme. The meme uses Photoshopped images of both cartoon restaurants in order to project two rivals, such as sports teams and TV shows.
Havokimin // College Humor
Elf on the shelf rhyming
The "Elf on the Shelf" tradition began when parents would put an elf doll on the mantle during the holiday season and tell their children that it was watching them be naughty or nice. Toward the end of 2017, it became popular to post images of things sitting on top of other things that rhyme with their name using the phrase "You've heard of elf on the shelf, now get ready for X."
BlownIntoSpace // imgur
One does not simply...
Fans of "Lord of the Rings" won't need an explanation for this meme. Actor Sean Bean played Boromir in the movies, and one of his famous lines, "One does not simply walk into Mordor," became the inspiration for a meme that plays on the phrase.
I am a man/woman looking for...
After a 2017 tweet that posed a questionnaire using the classic dating template, "I am a man/woman looking for a man/woman" about Carly Rae Jepsen, a meme was born. Since then, it has become popular to use the format to make funny declarations.
One of the most popular memes of all time, "success kid" uses a 2007 photo taken of a little boy with a clenched fist and determined expression. It is almost always used to display small successful moments or "wins" that happen to someone throughout a normal day like getting an extra chicken nugget in a fast food meal.
Overly attached girlfriend
"Overly attached girlfriend" began in 2012 when a YouTuber uploaded a video of a girl singing a rendition of Justin Bieber's song "Boyfriend." A screenshot of it quickly began making its rounds on the internet, using captions portraying her as a stereotypical overly attached girlfriend.
Donald Trump yelling at lawnmower boy
The internet just couldn't help itself after images surfaced of a little boy mowing the lawn at the White House completely ignoring Trump. The kid was apparently so focused on the job that he didn't notice Trump when he came out to greet him, forcing Trump to yell loudly over the sound of the lawnmower and making for some great meme fuel.
Left exit 12
The "Left exit 12" meme uses a series of screen grabs from a 2013 YouTube video showing a car drifting dangerously into an exit ramp. People began photoshopping the exit sign (exit 12) to say comical things that one might swerve off the highway in order to get to.
Homer Simpson backs into the bushes
The love-hate relationship between animated neighbours Ned Flanders and Homer Simpson took an interesting turn in the "Simpsons" episode Homer Loves Flanders, which gave us the moment behind the Homer meme. In the episode, Ned becomes overwhelmed by Homer's overbearing brand of newfound friendship. What was originally Homer's threatening stare toward Ned after rejection was captured as a gif and memefied to portray an awkward, embarrassing moment.