A Study of Memes using Semiotics


G. Kavitha

Research Scholar, Department of Electronic Media and Mass Communication, Pondicherry University, Pondicherry

*Corresponding Author Email: gokavitha2002@gmail.com



Due to the technological advancement, communication between the individual and the society becomes faster through the world’s largest encyclopedia which is the so called Internet, and also easier because of the social media websites and the social network applications, where the users of this digital age can share their thoughts and ideas not only through the computers but also with their updated android mobile phones. The meme becomes popular among these digital users, as it provides platform for those who are tracking the happenings of the society. Many people started creating memes and posting in the face book, twitter, whatsapp, hike etc., and many people created own websites like Chennaimemes.com, tamilmemes.com etc., Print medium also started incorporating these memes in to their medium. This research will analyze how the memes are created and how the reality is represented in the memes using semiotics. This research is qualitative in nature with purposive sampling. Samples were collected from Tamil the Hindu newspaper - whatsapp kalakkal page, where the maximum messages in circulation among the digital users are getting published every week. The memes which follows Image macro memes format were taken for analysis.


KEYWORDS: Semiotics, Memes, Digital users, Sign, Image macro.




It is an undeniable fact that the arrival of online media and the technological advancement, communication between the individual and the society becomes faster through the world’s largest encyclopedia which is the so called Internet, and also easier because of the social media websites and the social network applications, where the users of this digital age can share their thoughts and ideas not only through the computers but also with their updated android mobile phones. Not only that the arrival of online media has empowered people to create their own content and publish them for the entire world to see.


With this trend of user-generated contents, the gaps between producers and consumers, especially in media in communication, are become less noticeable. (Bruns, 2007).Given this power, people are taking the media into their own hands. (Jenkins, 2009: 29). There are many motives that drive people to create their own user-generated content, Leung (2009) noted several reasons such as entertainment, socialization, and recognition, while Schaedel, and clement (2010) stressed it on the importance of personal recognition, and added that it is also for the purpose of social engagement. The act of using pictures to express emotions has been around for a very long time, even since the first time mankind is able to communicate through drawings. However, today people are using images to express their feelings in elaborate manners, such as using emoticons in text messages and even using a set of pictures accompanied with a story to further explain how they are feeling. One of the most popular ways in doing this today is by creating a customized image with simple characters and relevant texts based on personal experience. Many of these customized images have spread around the Internet and compile by people around the world in different languages. These set of personalized comics are known as Image macros.


Internet Meme and Image macro:

Image macros are characterized by the presence of a person, animal, object, or basically anything that can be made fun of. The main subject of the macro is placed at the middle of the image and provided relevant yet witty text on top and bottom of it. The text should portray the subject characteristics. The subject can be either real or fictional, and it can be anything as long as other people understand it. Along with the increase of popularity in these user-generated images, it soon became one of the most popular Internet phenomena today. Internet users refer these phenomena as memes, short for Internet meme. (Ibhu Sulhan, 2016). Meme could be anything from an image to an email or video file; however the most common meme is the image of a person or animal with a funny of witty caption. The word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as an attempt to explain the way cultural information spreads; Internet memes are a subset of this general meme concept specific to the culture and environment of the Internet. Image macro is one of the most prevalent forms of Internet memes.


The Hindu Tamil Newspaper

Tamil The Hindu is a Tamil daily newspaper published by The Hindu Group. The first issue was published on 16 September 2013. The paper is expected to address nine media markets. The Tamil Hindu price was Monday to Thursday Rs.5 and Friday to Sunday Rs.6.  The memes in The Tamil Hindu newspaper started publishing its memes content in the Whatsapp kalakkal space allotted in the Supplementary page Ilamai Pudumai in the year 2016.



According to Abdul Aziz Turhan Kariko (2013) on “Analysis of Internet Memes using semiotics” states that Internet memes allow users to produce meanings according to the theme of a picture; it also contains language formula. Sometimes users also write/generate meanings while not following the formulas/themes, just to have fun with it. Internet memes require users to be creative in producing meanings in respect to symbols, words, and contexts. It is similar on how advertisements in the form of images works; an image + word[s] = meanings. Internet memes are examples of how images, texts, art, language, creativity, myths, and popular culture relate with each other, which then is open for multi-interpretation regarding its user. These memes contain humor, as well as reflecting universal emotions, social message, cultural message and many more.  This research analyzes the relation on Internet memes that Internet users find every day, how they are appealing for them, by deconstructing what internet meme is and what it does. Analysis were conducted especially on how the relation between images, text, and meanings connect with each other to form social messages, political, universal emotions, or even just to be funny and entertain its users. Researchers examine 5 random samples of internet memes on the internet and decode their relation between images, texts, and meanings using semiotics.


Ibnu Sulhar (2016) on “Internet meme Analysis: Interpretive semiotic analysis on “Scumbag Steve” studied the denotative and connotative meanings of “Scumbag Steve” memes. The researcher also observed them from the mythological perspective, which yielded to findings of this study by interpreting the phenomena of “Scumbag Steve” and Internet memes as a myth in today’s society. He states that the “Scumbag Steve” and other Internet memes in general are not just forms of entertainment, but rather also used as a means of communication. Barthes’ Semiology theory was used for the study.


According to the Made Nunik Sayani (2013) study on “Semiotic analysis of meme in 9gag.com” has discussed the two memes of www.9gag.com, “Poker Face” meme and “Okay” meme. It states that from the signifiers of each memes, the signified from each of them can be known, and it leads to the meaning of each memes. When it is used in the posts the memes has different signifiers which lead to different signified and has different functions. This study aims to find out the signifiers and signified, and the function of each memes used in 9gag.com using the theory of semiotics from Saussure and the theory of semiotics and signs by Chandler.



The researcher has analyzed the most trending memes which was published in the Tamil The Hindu newspaper during the month end of December 2016 in the whatsapp kalakkal space of supplementary page “Ilamai Puthumai”. This whatapp kalakkal is a type of genre getting published on all Fridays.  As far as this research is concerned, the researcher has nothing to do with demonetization or with the newspaper. The researcher had used the newspaper just for collecting the sample. Since the memes are published once in a week on Fridays, the researcher had chosen the December 30th, 2016 issue, which was quoted by the newspaper itself as the most trending and the most shared memes of the year 2016. The researcher studied only the Image macro format memes using semiotics. This research is basically qualitative in nature and followed purposive sampling. This research will help readers, students and the new meme creators to understand and gives a wide knowledge about

1.      How Image macro memes were created.

2.      The role of signifiers and signified in Image macro memes.

3.      How the meanings or the messages were created when combined with text and image.

4.      The reality representations in memes.


Research Analysis:

Demonetization is the act of stripping a currency unit of its status as legal tender. It occurs whenever there is a change of national currency: The current form or forms of money is pulled from circulation and retired, often to be replaced with new notes or coins. Sometimes, a country completely replaces the old currency with new currency. On 8 November 2016, the Government of India announced the demonetization of all 500 rupees and 1,000 rupees banknotes of the Mahatma Gandhi Series.  The government claimed that the action would curtail the shadow economy and crack down on the use of illicit and counterfeit cash to fund illegal activity and terrorism. The sudden nature of the announcement—and the prolonged cash shortages in the weeks that followed—created significant disruption throughout the economy, threatening economic output. As there wasn’t enough new banknotes to replace the old, ATMs weren’t calibrated for the new sized bills, and people suddenly found themselves being pushed into depositing their cash into bank accounts (which half the people in the country would need to open for the first time) to remain economically kinetic. Hundreds of millions of people suddenly rush to banks, jewelry shops, foreign-exchange counters, and ATMs to stand for hours in serpentine lines which often stretched for blocks just to re-validate their wealth.


The content of the December 2016 memes in the Tamil The Hindu newspaper whatsapp kalakkal page which talks about the Demonetization was taken for the study. Out of 13 memes the researcher has taken only three memes which followed Image macro format memes for the study using Semiotics. Semiotics, or Semiology as it is often referred to, is concerned with anything that can stand for something else. It is the study of sign processes, meaning what signs signify and how, what signs are communicating, as well as how meaning is constructed and understood. In short, it is the study of everything to do with signs. Although arguably not a recognized field until the work of Charles Morris, Semiotics can be applied to almost every aspect of life because it is an interpretation of everything around us. Signs are not only the visual aspect that we all immediately think of  but also extends to include areas such as gestures or body language, music, Clothes, poetry, paintings, Morse code, food, and graffiti. These are all considered to be signs that fall into the category of Semiotics because they can all mean something other than the obvious.


Barthes' Semiotic Theory broke down the process of reading signs and focused on their interpretation by different cultures or societies. According to Barthes, signs had both a signifier, being the physical form of the sign as we perceive it through our senses and the signified, or meaning that is interpreted. Semiotic Theory is an ‘Interpretive' theory that can be applied to most aspects of everyday life although most people would not realize it. Semiotics research approaches signs as existing in various forms: pictures, words, letters, objects, natural objects, gestures, phenomena and actions. Semiotics explores the content of signs, their use and the formation of meanings of signs at both the level of a single sign and the broader systems and structures formed by signs.

According to Roland Barthes:


Table1. Barthes's model




3. sign






Level 1. The sign. The signifier and the signified, and the “associative total of the two” which is the sign.

Level 2. Myth: the “second-level” sign, or “second-level” semiological system.


The signifier in such a system is already a complete sign that already contains a signifier and a signified. The signified is “added on top” of that existing structure, so we get a sign of double complexity which is a myth. Myth uses all suitable existing signs as its signifiers: not only written speech, but also pictures, artistic representations, cultural phenomena, etc., that already have some meaning, but acquire some additional meaning when they are used as myths. The figure1, 2 and 3 represents the image macro format of memes. For Saussure (1959), the signified was a representation of a concept, while the signifier was used to represent the sound-image of that concept. The theory of Semiotics from Saussure and Roland Barthes model were used to analyze the three image macro memes. The researcher analyzed the Top text, Bottom text and the image individually and explains how meaning or a message were created or interpreted when combined together all the elements. The researcher has identified two types of sign elements in all the meme samples. One is visual and another one is written sign.


Analysis Meme 1:

nethila Kasu ottalama? Which means “whether a coin be stick on to the forehead?” and the bottom text says illa athukkum carda? Which means “or card for that also?”, and an image is placed at the centre.


a.      Top text: Neththila kasu ottalama? is a signifier which is a phrase written in Tamil language with dots followed by question mark, and the signified is the concept behind that signifier, which represents that in Hindu tradition, people used to place a coin in the forehead of a dead person. This is the concept behind the text on the top.


b.      Bottom text: Illa athukkum carda.? is a signifier which is a phrase written in Tamil Language with dots followed by question mark, and the signified is the mental concept which makes the viewer to interpret in their own way like what card it is? Or if it means credit or debit card, the concept here was that money in hand was not valid worth.


c.      Image: A mid shot of lady was talking through the telephone in the foreground with clear focus and in the back ground an old man was laying on the wooden cot without shirt and partially his dhothi is visible. His head was placed on the pillow and he was lying on the bed, a sheet was spread on the bed. The doors, racks and the way to other rooms are slightly blurred. The old lady who is talking through the telephone seems to be dull. The lady was wearing a sari and a red bindi was placed on the centre of the forehead. Her hair seems to be white and the hair was folded up. The room has got more vacant places. The image has the text mentioned on a side has KTV. This is a signifier sound-image according to Saussure’s concept of sign. Since the room has got more vacant place, there may be silence in the house, the set over there specifies that the people in that house belongs to upper or lower middle class family. The lady with white hair explains that she is an old lady calling somebody either for help or to communicate something to the other end of the phone. Since the old lady has got bindi on her face, she may be a person belonging to the Hindu religion. The text on the left side and the partial logo of the KTV visible on the image signified that the image was shot when it was telecasted in the Television.



On the whole when combined all the elements together it’s a sign which formed meaning like the old lady over telephone was calling somebody and asking whether coin can be placed at the forehead or the card should be used for that also. But in reality, that was not the actual interpretation of the entire meme. The image placed in the figure 1 was a shot of a Tamil movie “Emton Magan”. The old lady called her daughter to convey the message that her father had passed away. Even though it seems to be a sad message people who used to watch that movie takes this message in a slightly humorous way, because her daughter was called for so many times to see her father for the last time, but the death of him had not happened. So, when the death happened people who watch take it in that sense. The creator has kept that shot to give more weight age to the content, as that was a period of demonetization in the country, People of India was not able to use the money, and on the whole money transaction became a big crisis. People were asked to use their debit and credit cards for their needs, and every amount spent needs to be accounted. This issue shakes the whole country. The creator conveyed the sufferings of the people in a humorous way. But this is not only created for the entertainment purpose but as a sufferer, the creator wants to share his/ her experience to the society through social media. This shows that memes is created not only to make fun of, but also used as a tool to express the emotion and feelings which they themselves experience or experienced by the society.


Analysis Meme 2:

a.    Top Text: “That moment when I said” is a signifier which is just a small group of words in English Language, and the signified meaning could not be derived properly because it may convey different meanings to different people, as the text it left open for viewers’ interpretation.


b.     Bottom Text: “I HAVE 100RS NOTE” – is just a small group of words which is a signifier, and the signified meaning behind that phrase is happened to be same like that I have 100RS note.


c.    Image: The signifier in the image is: there is a man in front running towards the viewer and at the back few other people also following him and there is some water in the place where they are running. The man is wearing a full hand shirt with a sleeveless overcoat and a pant with some clothes like dhoti over that. There are few people coming behind at a distance and the clothes are not clear.


The concept seems to be like a group of people chasing a person. A logo stating saravana memes is also there. So, it is understood that the memes were created by saravana memes. Actually in the film, a group of people will chase the hero Jack Sparrow



The collective meaning of the picture and the text will be achieved after combining all the signifiers and the signified. The message conveyed over there after combing the text and images is like when the person had uttered that he is having some 100 rupees note, at that moment people started chasing him for that amount. But the real thing is that the phrase “That moment I Said”, “I Have 100Rs note”, the viewer of the memes has to fill the gap by seeing the image and get a meaning from that. The text is not closed, so the reader or the viewer has the full freedom to interpret the message on his/her own way. The creator has conveyed the message with a shot from the film “Pirates of the Caribbean”. This meme was created in an entertainment way, but it makes people to think about the need of money when there was no money. It carries some kind of social phenomenon.


Analysis Meme 3:

a)   Top Text: It is written in English which says “Hello SBI”. The term is a Signifier and the signified meaning one can interpret is that somebody is calling SBI or meeting the SBI to get the attention of the other side. Mostly people say Hello when calling through phones or when engaged in chat rooms.


b)   Bottom Text is written in Hinglish – where the language used is Hindi, but the text is written in English. The people who can read English can read the content at the bottom of the image, but could not make a meaning if he or she did not know the Hindi Language. Here the group of words “MAI LOAN WAPAS KARNE KE LIYE READY HU. 1000-500 KE NOTES LE LO” is a signifier. The meaning is “I am ready to settle my loan amount. Take 1000-500 note”. The concept behind this is, one is ready to settle his/her loan and asking the opposite person to take 1000 and 500 rupees notes from him. Reading text alone does not create any fun. It seems to be a message passed by the loan taker to the SBI person. When reading the message there shows some immediacy like the person want to close the loan immediately.


d)   Image: In the image there is a stout man facing towards his left with a mobile phone on his left ear with a watch in his left wrist. The person is wearing a full- hand shirt with cooling glass on his eyes and a hat on his head colored with red and yellow. The image signified that the person is a wealthy and a healthy person.



The combination of two texts conveyed or can be interpreted as; someone is calling SBI says Hello and asking the SBI people to take 1000 and 500 Rs from him as Loan amount. When the image is combined with the text the signifiers gives different signified. When talking about the reality the person in the image is Mr. Vijay Vittal Mallya is an Indian businessman and politician who is the subject of an extradition effort to try to force his return from the U.K. to India to face charges of financial crimes. If the viewer was known to the back story of the person then they can interpret a meaning and make a fun out of it. The total figure says that Vijay Mallya is a person who wants to return his loan to SBI asking the bankers to take his 1000 and 500 rupees note from him, which is not worth valid after the announcement of demonetization. The creator of memes wants to tell the viewer that Vijay Malaya having been telling no money to the bankers for a long time, suddenly wants to deposit the 1000-500 rupees note in his hand knowing that the money which he is having would not be valid after demonetization. This means he may be a person having more money but saying that he did not have money for a long time now does not know what to do with money, wants to convert all the black money which he is having in to white money. This meme is created in a funny and entertainment way. In addition, to that it conveys a social phenomenon like big shots can make their own way when they are having more than enough money in their hand.



The researcher concluded that, when analyzing the three memes it was found that in the Image macro memes, the texts that are positioned at the top and bottom of the image are created with different languages. Figure 1 in Tamil, figure 2 in English and figure 3 in hinglish-combination of Hindi and English. The researcher identified that the memes were created by different people speaking different languages. The creator created the memes with the film shots, and with the real person existing in the current world. Image was selected to go with the text to create meaning. The relationship between signifier and the signified helps to decode the message properly provided the reader needs to have some background knowledge about the image and the context. Otherwise, decoding would be a difficult task for the reader. The reader would probably read the message and go, and there would not be any entertainment or fun for them. The real happenings of the society is represented with real and reel images. Though the memes are created to make fun of, all the three memes in this study in one way or the other represents the social phenomenon. People, who want to make fun on the issues that are rising now and then in the country, shall be the victims or the witness of the social phenomenon. Since internet is world’s largest encyclopedia, people all around the world can post and track the happenings of any country, and can share their views from any part of their world. Instead of checking who created these memes it needs to be analyzed, how people create memes and how they decode it, as they create memes to share their grievances or experience to the mass via digital media. The digital users of social media, who love those memes, share it, comment it when it touches their feelings and emotions. People create the memes not only for the entertainment but also use these memes as a tool to figure out the social phenomenon and to express one’s own or society’s feelings or emotions in an entertainment way.



1.     Communication theory/semiotics and Myth. From www.wikibooks.org

2.     Demonetization. From http://www.investopedia.com

3.     Image macros. From  http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/image-macros

4.     Internet meme. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_meme

5.     Internet meme by Vangie Beal. From www.webopedia.com

6.     Roland Barthes and his semiotic theory. Published on March 23, 2015. From https://www.ukessays.com

7.     Semiotic Analysis. From https://koppa.jyu.fi

8.     Signs, signification, and semiotics (semiology). From http://web.sbu.edu/theology/bychkov/barthes.pdf

9.     The Hindu (Tamil). Retrieved August 30, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org

10.   Abdul Aziz Turhan Kariko.. Analysis on Internet Memes using Semiotics. Binus University. Accessed 24 June 2013. From www.english.binus.ac.id 

11.   Arthur Asa Berger. Media Analysis Techniques. Fourth edition. Sage publications. 2012.

12.   Bruns, A. Prod usage: Towards a broader framework for user –led content creation. Washington DC: ACM. 2007.

13.   Ibnu Sulhar. Internet Meme Analysis: Interpretive semiotic analysis on the “scumbag Steve”. 2016.

14.   Jenkins, H., Li, X., Krauskopf, A. D., & Green, J. If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead: Creating value in a spreadable marketplace. Convergence Culture. 2009.

15.   Leung, L. User-generated content on the internet: An examination of gratifications, civic engagement and psychological empowerment. New Media & Society.2009; 11(8), 1327-1347.

16.   Made Nunik Sayani. Semiotic analysis of meme in 9gag.com.2013.







Received on 24.10.2017       Modified on 08.12.2017

Accepted on 22.01.2018      ©A&V Publications All right reserved

Res.  J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2018; 9(1): 219-224.

DOI: 10.5958/2321-5828.2018.00039.6