GOOD.IS: A Beginner’s Guide to Meme Making From The Internet’s Best Artists

Like good art, good memes communicate with the outside world, and they also communicate a message from the artist behind them. If you want to make a great meme—a meme that resonates on a viral level—there is a lot to take into account: your message, your images, your text, how images interact with your text, syntax, timing. With meme making, all the signifiers need to work together to amount to an incisive punch line.

Obviously, there is no specific formula, but their essence and outcome are identical. A meme is digitally Darwinian, a process of natural selection that can’t be forced into viral consciousness—which explains why meme creation is extremely difficult (and creating bad content is embarrassing).

Like good art, good memes communicate with the outside world, and they also communicate a message from the artist behind them. If you want to make a great meme—a meme that resonates on a viral level—there is a lot to take into account: your message, your images, your text, how images interact with your text, syntax, timing. With meme making, all the signifiers need to work together to amount to an incisive punch line.

Obviously, there is no specific formula, but their essence and outcome are identical. A meme is digitally Darwinian, a process of natural selection that can’t be forced into viral consciousness—which explains why meme creation is extremely difficult (and creating bad content is embarrassing).

I tried once, in an isolated moment, to create a good meme after I was inspired by this photo of Nicki Minaj sitting on a bed. Nicki posted this in December, and it made me LOL. (Her posture and mood is ripe for memory.) Some have tried, but I failed. I must have been disappointed in the final product, because I can find no trace of it on my phone. I used to think I had my finger on the pulse of the new new, but I can’t make a good meme to save my life.

Maybe that’s what was missing in my memes: too much attention to craft, muddled (or dishonest) intent. A quality meme is part subversive form of protest, part meticulously crafted digital house of cards. The nature of meme creation is a lot like making good art. (In fact, a good meme is and should be considered an art form.) @KA5SH, the rapper and memer behind the genius “IFW with the vision / let’s link and build” memes is determined to make people see them as such.

His art show “By Any Memes Necessary”—which opened in February at LA’s Junior High art gallery to lines that that curled around the block—explores the ways in which memes help people cope with trauma and how they teach empathy.

The show displayed work by some of your fave high-concept meme makers, like @sensualmemes and @gothshakira, who @KA5SH says are some of the founders and pioneers of the long-form intersectional feminist format. You’ve seen these memes before—smart, stream of consciousness blocks of text and image memes intended to raise awareness and cope with gender double standards, correcting white feminism and broke art fuckbois. Most images below the text are of women-identifying cartoon characters or celebrities. Latinx-identifying @gothshakira has said that she uses Latinx women like Shakira, Selena Gomez, and J-Lo in her memes deliberately, to encourage people from creating content that misrepresents cultures that are not their own.

Memes are often created in iPhone Notes or with third party InstaCollage apps; this rudimentary format has become part of the identifying aesthetic of a meme. But a meme is more than just its visual form. As American text artist Jenny Holzer put it in a 1997 interview in The New York Times, art becomes good when you “rely on the artist's representation” and realize that “he or she would have no reason to lie. A viewer with a combination of sensitivity and knowledge will perceive that something is art and is good. Time also helps.”

Timeliness, according to meme artist @gothshakira, is a critical component: “In order to make a good meme, it has to be relatable and it has to reference real life experience, but it also has to have its finger on the pulse of culture.” It can’t look forced. Following these rules might help elevate your meme making, but there is more to it than that.