The Science Behind A Great Meme

By Don Caldwell, Editor-In-Chief at Know Your Meme

A Super Bowl commercial has several important elements in common with a successful meme. Many Super Bowl ads have tried to get the vibe right, but they don’t always get there. Those that succeed often contain attention-grabbing hooks, with edgy, quirky or just plain creative ingredients to make it work, while those that fail might be seen as trite, boring or cringe. The ultimate goal is to make something that drives interest and discussion, cementing it as a part of mainstream culture.

But there is more to a good meme. First and foremost, good memes often take a novel approach to media and typically break corporate creative norms. What’s produced by the average corporate design team is likely too polished and too reliant on thoroughly researched formulas to capture the right mood. Many brands have already figured this bit out over the years as they’ve navigated Facebook, YouTube and other social platforms that stole away audiences once dominated by television. But, there’s more to learn. Celebrities and influencers aren’t the most important element of a meme, and even the most authentic, clever and timely memes will not necessarily go viral unless it has all the right elements aligned.

Here, I’ll break down the story of “Vibing Cat” to show the journey of this meme’s success – which had built-in flexibility to work across multiple platforms, providing the raw material that could be remixed into new variations and appeal to a wide audience.

Cats and Music Aren’t Enough to Make a Meme

Cats and catchy tunes are two tried and true elements of many viral memes, it’s true. But these and many elements like them aren’t all created equal. We’ve all seen enough cat memes to know that there’s a difference between a generically cute cat, a pretty funny cat and a cat that’s going to go viral. That special cat face that looks slightly human (as with Vibing Cat), slightly annoyed, or even very crazy, wins over the hearts of millions because it’s so hard to capture on film. Additionally, the candidness of an unprofessionally shot photo or video will often beat beautifully shot footage of cats with flashy lighting in the court of internet opinion, where authenticity reigns.

Similarly, finding purposefully quirky or popular music is never as good as allowing the music to find the meme. In this case, a TikTok user uploaded a short clip of his cat bobbing its head to an EDM dance beat — something that was not overly produced or painstakingly planned. But even better, these elements meshed well with other footage and were able to be repurposed. New music could be spliced in, background images could be added that included Biden clips and car sequences.

To fit the music, the clip needed to be turned into a perfectly looped animation, which typically involves simple editing techniques to make it appear as an endless video of a cat bobbing its head. This key factor allowed Vibing Cat to reach the next level in its meme evolution, increasing its virality by an exponential amount.

Allow for a Journey Across Platforms

A meme creator needs to be patient – often a good meme takes a while to get going. And, the life cycle of this meme is a fascinating one, as it began as a humble TikTok video, spread over to Twitter, became the “CatJAM” Twitch Emote, and finally morphed into a viral remix video series that transcended platforms entirely. The journey took not days or weeks but months to gain momentum and shows that memes need to be able to work in multiple places, and for multiple audiences, in order to have the best chance of finding their footing.

First shot at home by TikToker Mick Lagi, someone with only a few hundred followers, the first version initially received only a couple hundred thousand views, a modest amount for a platform like TikTok. Once the meme was posted to Twitter, it gained a much larger audience and quickly moved over to Twitch as the catJAM emote, gaining new ground as a GIF to share in live stream chats whenever a good song is being played. From there, the catJAM image moved back to TikTok and Reddit where it was used as an image to react to different things, as people added captions, images and videos layered into the original gif.

The truly great meme plays well across social media so that people can share it easily with different audiences, creating more momentum and getting into a wider variety of conversations.

Leave Room for Customization

While Vibing Cat went viral on social media relatively recently, it had to go through multiple stages of transformation before it became the meme it is today. To really hit its stride, it needed to become more than just a video of a cat bobbing its head, it had to become a canvas for meme creators to work their magic with.

Great memes offer raw materials for creative influencers and regular people to use in their own creations. The material needs to be flexible enough to apply to a variety of situations, but have a singular hook or symbolic anchor that remains in each new context. This has been seen in numerous memes throughout internet history, including other legendary remix series like Epic Sax GuyShooting Stars, and Coffin Dance, this year’s breakout hit.

While memes can certainly be unpredictable and require a number of factors to get off the ground, there are key elements that become clear when investigating case studies such as Vibing Cat. While there is no way to guarantee success, learning from examples like this in meme history and expanding your internet culture literacy can go a long way in increasing chances of success in navigating the waters of online communities.

To succeed online, you need to learn from past success stories to gain knowledge of what works (and what doesn’t), and memes provide a window into the depths of internet audiences’ hearts and minds.

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