What Were the Memes of the Year? Depends on How You Define ‘Meme’

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Charlie Sheen (L); Rebecca Black (R)

A meme is like that inside joke with your childhood best friend: you can bring it up at any waking moment and it’s guaranteed to get a laugh. But the best memes are those with universal appeal, with a hit of humor that anyone can understand. Each year sees memes that draw the laughs and cries, the cheers and jeers of the Internet denizens. They’re the online phenomena we love to share – with our friends, our coworkers, and even our moms (if only they’d understand). Sadly, many of them are mere flashes in the digital pan, quickly overtaken by the latest craze within months. A lucky few pervade into our everyday culture. It’s still yet to be seen which memes will have longevity once the calendar ticks over to 2012, but we’ve opined on the top 10 memes of 2011 (along with 53 other wide-ranging lists). And, as is customary for this final month of the year, news outlets of all shapes and sizes have similarly opined. So who got it right? Rather, is there one definitive list?

TIME’s top three memes:
1. We Are the 99%
2. Planking
3. Princess Beatrice’s Fascinator

This year brought us an onslaught of memes based around newsworthy events, many of which took top honors on our list. The Occupy Wall Street protests brought us the phrase “We Are the 99%,” which has become a catchphrase, pitting the common man against the Richie Riches of the nation. But since the phrase’s introduction in August, it’s been applied to more than just the protesters. The 99% is a synonym for all things middle class, underrepresented, or under attack.

(SPECIAL: The Top 10 Everything of 2011)

It’s hardly enough to simply be in the news, though. Facebook’s list of “memes” of the year, which included the Packers’ Super Bowl win and Casey Anthony’s acquittal. However, a meme, by our count, is a viral event that is twisted and shaped by the act of going viral. The message may remain the same, but the appeal becomes greater and more proliferated. We couldn’t apply the Packers’ win to our everyday lives, since we have opposing football loyalties. NPR took a newsy look at the year in memes, concluding that Pepper Spray Cop and the bin Laden Situation Room photo were worthy of their list. Both were image memes that were rooted in serious events but were quickly Photoshopped and spun off into much-shared viral images.

But not all started with a newsworthy bent. Pop culture, naturally, had a huge hand in serving up memes. Charlie Sheen appeared everywhere this year – radio, TV, theater stages nationwide, roofs of parking garages – but no location was more prolific than his foray onto Twitter. And his catchphrase, “winning,” became Twitter hashtag #winning, quickly adopted by the masses. Princess Beatrice’s fascinator and Tim Tebow’s unique prayers on the football field conform to the same mold: they were highly unique occurrences that took on a mainstream bent. Copycats keep a meme spinning, as evidenced by planking’s huge boom.

(WATCH: The 10 Best Viral Videos of the Year)

Know Your Meme, the veritable experts in memology (yep, it’s a real thing) paints an Internet-centric picture of the year’s best memes. First World Problems and Chuck Testa became punchlines much like Charlie Sheen’s wacky wordsmithing. But the site also roped in viral victors Nyan Cat and ’60s Spider-Man, video and image-based memes (respectively) that inspired pictorial spinoffs, video remixes, and input from anyone inspired enough to create their own version. NewsFeed, we shamefully admit, still doesn’t understand the appeal of these memes, so we left them off.

Have you noticed any others we’ve missed? Here’s a hint: it was a stunt that started off as a serious attempt at stardom, quickly earned the ire of the Internet, and was endlessly jeered by the media – but nonetheless turned around to launch a veritable celebrity. Of course, that would be Rebecca Black and her awesomely bad song “Friday.” Black proved true the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad press, infiltrating every social network, inspiring parodies, and even becoming so mainstream as to be the basis for a Black Friday advertisement, more than eight months after her song’s debut. So why is she missing from the memes list? Well, “Friday” was the #1 viral video of the year and Black cracked the list of the top 10 fleeting celebrities. She seems to have transcended her status a mere meme and broke into a sort of legitimate stardom.

In reflecting on the year, there are some memes that NewsFeed wishes we had been a part of. So, our New Year’s resolution is to spend more time on meme-starters 4chan and Reddit, to ensure that we don’t miss the next “Scumbag Steve.” Some memes need hardly more than a hilarious photo and some overlaid text to take off – but can they keep survive the Internet’s fickleness? We have a hunch only the newsworthy ones will be more than just a forgotten relic of 2011.

VOTE NOW: Who Should be TIME’s 2011 Person of the Year?