Memes have been shaping human society for as long as we've been able to communicate ideas with each other. Popular ideas that resonated with people spread quickly through simple word of mouth, becoming a part of the culture and lore of society. Thus a meme is born.
The invention of the Internet brought along a new kind of meme that followed the same rules of traditional memes, but with the ability to spread many times faster and reach a much larger audience than ever before. This is the story of how modern technology has enabled people to change the culture of the world in an instant.
Before the Internet was introduced, memes were spread through word of mouth. A particularly memorable idea would spread directly from person to person, limited only by geography and the time it takes to transfer ideas from one mind to the next. With this method of dispersion, ideas evolved and mutated with each retelling as people added their own ideas and built on existing ideas. The game of chinese whispers is based on the human tendency to innacurately relay information.
Arguably the most successful internet meme of all time is the acronym for "laugh out loud" or "LOL". It is an extremely useful acronym that is three letters long, and consists of only two letters in the alphabet. Nearly everyone has used "LOL" in casual conversation on the internet, and its meaning is almost universally understood.
The reason why "LOL" is so universal is because it has all three characteristics of a successful meme. It is memorable, easily duplicated, and easily shared. "LOL" was in use long before the Internet as we know it even existed, and will probably continue to see use as the internet evolves over the coming years and decades.
It makes sense that the most successful memes on the internet tend to be images with amusing text overlayed on top because they are easily copied, and can be shared on a variety of social networks without the need to supplement the image with additional context. The immense popularity of the "I can has cheezburger" cat and the multitude of "lolcats" that have proliferated throughout the Internet attests to this fact.
Every facet of society is affected by memes. Our beliefs and customs are made up of ideas that have been passed from one person to the next. The way we dress and talk and interact with others are all memes that have become deeply embedded in the collective "consciousness" of the society in which we live. Some would call this the Zeitgeist.
This is a very slow process, evolving naturally over countless generations of sharing. Once a meme becomes exceptionally popular in the traditional model, it has a tendency to persist for a very long time. Religion is an example of the tenacity of a traditional meme once it has affected enough minds to sustain itself.
Things started changing rapidly with the introduction of the Internet and memes starting taking on a new set of characteristics. One of the earliest prototypes of the modern internet meme is the "Killroy was here" motif that began appearing in the United States around World War II. It was a simple, iconic motif that was easy to duplicate and share.
It is also important to understand how memes are spread. The Cheezburger Cat did not appear out of thin air. Someone created the original image of the sandwich craving kitten, and decided to share it with all of his or her friends. Those friends that recieved that image and found it amusing, copied it and sent it to all of their friends, who sent it to all of their friends, who sent it to all of their friends, and so forth. Each individual is able to share an idea with multiple others at the same time, who each have the ability to share with multiple others themselves. An idea worth sharing will multiply each time it is shared, and if it is a particularly popular idea, can reach a global audience in mere days thanks to the level of connectivity that the Internet provides.
There are many internet platforms on which memes can be spread. Before the rise of social media utilities like Facebook and Twitter, memes were primarily spread through email. Those who are old enough remember recieving emails with funny pictures or anectodes from their friends, which could then be forwarded to even more friends and contacts, perpetuating the cycle. If the meme became popular enough, it would get picked up and posted on entertainment websites where it could reach an even greater audience, who had the ability to spread the meme even further. The same dynamic occurred with the introduction of social media, where ideas could be posted on walls, sent to inboxes, and put up on news feeds for all to see.
Memes tend to originate from social media websites such as Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook, 4chan, and Twitter where sharing is encouraged. Oftentimes memes are created through community effort, playing off of current events and inside jokes within that community. These types of collective memes tend to stay inside the community in which they were created, but some occassionally do become a part of mainstream popular culture. An example of this phenomenon is the proliferation of the phrase "Do you even lift?" and it's acronym "DYEL" that was initially a meme within the online bodybuilding community, but has since seen moderate success on other platforms. It has evolved submemes such as "Dost thou even hoist?" and has inspired the creation of artwork and other types of media.
Another type of meme is known as a forced meme. This is an idea that is not memorable enough on it's own to cause people to share it based on it's own merit, and must be forced into popularity through deliberate spamming. While it is almost impossible to know for sure which memes are natural and which are forced, it is highly unlikely that a forced meme can ever acchieve the same level of success as a natural meme. To do so would require way more resources than most people or groups are willing to expend for the sake of a funny image that may never be popular. An example of a forced meme that has been ironically successful is the "Milhouse is not a meme" meme based on the character from The Simpsons.
Some years ago, users on 4chan began spamming images of Milhouse in an attempt to force the character into meme status. The attempt failed, but the counter-meme "Milhouse is not a meme" became a popular response to thwart further attempts to spam Milhouse. "Milhouse is not a meme" is virtually unknown outside of 4chan, but it remains as a testament to the futility of forcing memes.
So in reality, there is no clear way to become famous on the Internet. The best anyone can do is to have ideas that are memorable, and share them on a platform that allows for easy duplication and sharing. It helps to share as many ideas to as many people as possible, but it doesn't take much for a truly memorable idea to become an overnight sensation.