The term Internet meme is used to describe a concept that spreads quickly via the Internet. The term is a reference to the concept of memes, although this concept refers to a much broader category of cultural information.
At its most basic, an Internet meme is simply the propagation of a digital file or hyperlink from one person to others using methods available through the Internet (for example, email, blogs, social networking sites, instant messaging, etc). The content often consists of a saying or joke, a rumor, an altered or original image, a complete website, a video clip or animation, or an offbeat news story, among many other possibilities. In simple terms, an Internet meme is an inside joke, that a large number of Internet users are in on. An Internet meme may stay the same or may evolve over time, by chance or through commentary, imitations, and parody versions, or even by collecting news accounts about itself. Internet memes have a tendency to evolve and spread extremely quickly, sometimes going in and out of popularity in just days. They are spread organically, voluntarily, and peer to peer, rather than by compulsion, predetermined path, or completely automated means. The term "Meme" was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 pop-science bestseller, The Selfish Gene.
The term may refer to the content that spreads from user to user, the idea behind the content, or the phenomenon of its spread. Internet memes have been seen as a form of art.
One common form of Internet meme is created when a person, company, product, musical group, or the like is promoted on the Internet for its pop culture value. Vanity sites, for example, are among the first recognized Internet memes.
Often, a person or company becomes infamous (or indeed famous) by virtue of an embarrassing video, e-mail, or other act.
Many Internet memes are urban legends, fraud schemes, slander or false news stories that are either planted deliberately to become an Internet meme, evolve by mistake or rumor, or that jump from an offline source to the Internet. A relatively common example is the 2012 doomsday prediction. It is also common to create fake "for sale" listings on sites such as Craigslist or eBay for no other reason than to amuse people. Other web sites collect lists of such hoaxes or offer services by which users can fact-check popular claims they find on the Internet in order to determine their source and whether or not they are true.
Public relations, advertising, and marketing professionals have embraced Internet memes as a form of viral marketing to create marketing "buzz" for their product or service. Internet memes are seen as cost-effective, and because of their (sometimes self-conscious) faddishness, a way to create an image of cleverness or trendiness. Marketers, for example, use Internet memes to create interest in films that would otherwise not generate positive publicity among critics. The film Snakes on a Plane generated much publicity from this method. Political operatives use Internet memes to shape opinion. Used in the context of public relations, the term would be more of an advertising buzzword than a proper Internet meme, although there is still an implication that the interest in the content is for purposes of trivia, ephemera, or frivolity rather than straightforward advertising and news.