In a phrase, they are the digital age’s “inside jokes”: exclusively funny to those who know what they’re referencing (although some memes are designed to be less funny than heartbreaking). Both inside jokes and memes are community- and culture-forming since they rely on a communal experience through their establishment of a point of shared knowledge and friendly association.
They differ, though, in terms of inclusivity. Inside jokes are often postfaced with “you had to be there”, but the door to “getting” a movie or TV meme is always open. “You had to be there” becomes “you have to watch it”, changing the tense from past to present, actively inviting the un-amused into the fold of the tickled. Since TV and film memes reference such widely-shared media, there is usually no limit on how large the community of people “in” on the meme can be – and neither do they have to know each other (unlike inside jokes, which are usually limited to small groups of friends or family). Memes like the following, which references the catchphrase of James McAvoy’s character in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, are effectively contagious amongst fans of the film or show in question, since the very act of “getting” them signals membership of a community (even if that community is as simple as People That Have Seen Split).
For those who haven’t seen the film or show in question, databases like Know Your Meme exist, cluing the confused in on the references a meme makes with a brief contextual explanation; making it accessible to anyone, anywhere. But, interestingly, sites, like Know Your Meme, may actually be the last resort for those outside of the loop. In their study on inside jokes, scholars Flamson and Barrett examined which versions of the same joke people preferred: the version that explicitly explained the particular background of the joke (i.e. what it referenced, and hence what made it funny – as a Know Your Meme entry would) or the context-devoid version. “Decoding” a joke on your own, they found, made it funnier.
So what does this mean for memes specifically? I think it suggests they have a secret power to actively motivate people into watching the media they reference. We’re a social species, so the intimacy and sense of camaraderie involved with “getting” the meme appeals to us. But some memes are less simply translated into words, so it can take a lot of eloquence to explain and effort to understand the intricate plot and character workings behind one if you haven’t seen the work it references in the first place. You could try to find the Know Your Meme entry for the memetic phrase “etcetera” (you’d fail; it doesn’t exist as of yet) and try to understand the joke through the site’s rather anatomical explanations – or you could just watch Split.
For fandoms, this is doubly true. Memes are part and parcel of any fan community, but for tightly-bound, self-selected groups (like those devoted to Doctor Who or the BBC’s Sherlock) memes have a keener ability to reinforce inward ties like belonging and kinship; the more obscure the reference, the tighter the circle of fans who get it. Outwardly, the fandom establishes its group status and claims a positive space for its members: whole sections of social media are devoted to meme accounts for specific shows, and attract large followings of devoted fans who want to gather together to revel in their shared passion; see: this for Game of Thrones memes, this for Harry Potter and this for Friends).
(It’s worth noting that fandoms don’t tend to congregate around stand-alone movies; with the exception of some cult favorites, franchises and TV shows have the advantage here.)
That memes from the long-dead Friends and the Harry Potter films are as popular as those from still-running shows like Game of Thrones points to the resurrective ability of memes. Dormant fan bases can be reactivated by their positive pull and promises of shared laughter and commiseration, ensuring the magic never dies even when the franchise has.
Memes matter to fans, so they matter to studios and marketers, too. Because of their stronger sense of self-defined community, fandoms, in particular, tend to engage with their beloved show or film at a deeper level. Research from brand consultancy firm Troika confirms just this: not only do fandoms “watch more” of their chosen media, they also “buy more” and “evangelize more”, increasing visibility of a show as well as its studio’s bottom line profit. Courting fandoms through memes, then, has become a necessary part of marketing and merch-selling strategies (take a look at these Instagram posts for some Tyrion Lannister-inspired examples).
In terms of engagement and yield, fandom-loved shows and movies have the bonus of greater depth and longevity (AKA: self-subsisting, high profits). But one-offs have had their fair share of success in increasing viewership and sales via memes, too. Ever since they became a “thing”, savvy studios have been rolling out viral-friendly marketing campaigns for their films. Straight Outta Compton is a great example here: 3 weeks before its release, the movie’s marketers launched #StraightOutta, a meme-generating site that allowed would-be fans to personalise the film’s logo, often leading to humorous effect. Campaigns like these turn fans into prosumers: audiences who effectively perform free marketing for studios through the sharing of their meme creations. It worked: the marketing campaign won a Shorty Award for its innovative use of and success with viral content (9 million #StraightOutta memes were generated), while Fortune put part of the film’s phenomenal box office success – a well-above-estimates $60m on opening, and a world record for how quickly it passed $2bn in US ticket sales – down to its finely-tuned meme machine.
#StraightOutta was deemed so successful that it was co-opted to promote other films.
Memes are a fine art, though, and if used without a healthy dose of self-awareness, can make a film flop. When the corporate entities behind Ghost in the Shell launched a meme generator in the vein of Straight Outta Compton’s, tone-deafness to criticisms of the film’s controversial casting led to the campaign’s extraordinary backfiring. Detractors of the film repurposed the generator to produce memes calling out its whitewashing of the original story, effectively rendering the campaign a spectacular own goal (and one that contributed, in part, to the film’s bombing at the box office).
Why do memes matter? They are, in effect, industrial-strength cultural glue; tapping into our inherently social dispositions by fostering a sense of positive community amongst hardcore and casual TV and film fans alike. For established shows and franchises, they are a means of expressing both their light-hearted and sentimental values amongst fans and can inject new life into sleeping art. Their virality can lay the groundwork for new releases, too, securing them a prime spot in pop culture as well as engineering financial success as word-of-mouth fills theaters. Impossible to ignore for filmmakers, and a fundamental, positive aspect of any self-respecting fanbase, memes matter because they are our cultural contagion: uniting fans and rejuvenating and championing the art we love best.