Many people know of memes as images (often altered and frequently hilarious) that are shared widely over the Internet. Who could forget Grumpy Cat? Or The Most Interesting Man in the World? What people don't know is how the term "meme" came to be.
The word "meme" actually dates back to 1976, to a man named Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, an English ethologist and evolutionary biologist, wrote in his book, The Selfish Gene, a suggestion that ideas—like organisms—can adapt and multiply. He proposed calling the concept mimeme, after the Greek word mimēma 'that which is imitated,' but he shortened it to meme. Thus the term was born, but it wouldn't become an online obsession until over thirty years later.
It's likely that students don't know the history of the word "meme," but that hasn't stopped them from embracing memes as part of their everyday communications. Not only are memes widely used in text vernacular, but educators are seeing memes make an appearance in formal reports, school projects, and presentations.
This leads us to the question: How do you cite a meme? Memes fall in the gray space of individual design and public intellectual property, which can be confusing for most students. However, as memes are simply digital images that have been edited, there is an academic obligation to cite a meme the way you would Tweets, YouTube videos, blogs, or any other electronic source.
Luckily, the citation structure of a meme is comparable to that of a digital image from any website. Students should first identify the following pieces of information:
- The title of meme (if it has no official title, student should create a short description)
- Date the meme was published (if known)
- Date the meme was accessed/retrieved
- Title of the website where the meme was published
- URL of the website where the meme was published (with and without http://)
- The publisher of the site (often found at the very bottom of the homepage)
Once the appropriate information has been gathered, the citation format should be established. APA (American Psychological Association) is most often used by Education, Psychology, and Sciences; MLA (Modern Language Association) style is typically used by the Humanities; Chicago/Turabian style is generally used by Business, History, and the Fine Arts. While instructors often teach how to cite in all three styles, a student should know which format is expected for their class.
As an example, a citation for the Success Kid meme would look like this in APA format:
Title of meme/image or your own description of the image [Digital image]. (Year Published).
Retrieved from (URL)
Success Kid [Digital Image]. (2007). Retrieved from
The citation would look like this in MLA 8 format:
Title of meme/image or your own description of the image and meme. Title of the Website where
it was published, Publisher, Day Mo. Year it was published (if known). (URL without
http:// or https://).
Success Kid meme. Know Your Meme, Literally Media, 26 Aug. 2007,
Finally, in Chicago/Turabian Format it would look like this:
Title or description. Digital image. Website Title. Mo. Day, Year Published. Accessed Mo. Day,
Year (only include if there is no publication date). URL.
Success Kid. Digital image. Know Your Meme. Aug. 26, 2007.
With this information, as well as the growing repertoire of available resources for academic integrity and online citation, we hope every meme that comes your way can be cited and enjoyed with ease.
Richard Dawkins on the hijacking of the word meme