The Elaborate History of Memes


Quarantine has us scrolling through our social media a lot more, and, along the way, we encounter plenty of dank memes. There are some that seem restrained to a certain platform, such as TikTok trends, while others are immortal and can be found everywhere, like the Rick Roll. But what are these quirky fads, and how did they start?

Let’s start with the word itself: meme. The word predates our concept of modern memes and was coined by Richard Dawkin back in 1976. Dawkin was looking for a word to describe a “cultural gene,” and he even tried to mimic the sound of the word “gene.” Let’s here it from the man himself:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

Richard Dawkin, “The Selfish Gene.”

This description seems to suit the memes we know and love, right? Dawkins agreed, but he wanted to make a very important distinction clear. In 2013, he said that Internet memes include a variable of creativity and deliberate change, rather than being an idea that evolves naturally as it’s passed from person to person, like a game of telephone.

So, if we’re understanding memes as “an idea that passes from person to person,” then suddenly a whole lot of things turn into memes, right? It turns them into a part of human culture instead of something that popped into existence when young people got on the internet.

For instance, we might consider this a meme:

This is a Sator Square, and it contains five latin words that can be read no matter where you start. We don’t know exactly what it means, but it was found over multiple centuries in many different cultures, such as France, Italy, Syria, and England. Could this be a meme? Did ancient people look at this and smile to themselves because they found it clever?

There’s some debate over what the first internet meme was, but most people agree that it’s the famous dancing baby of 1996.

This baby was made by a graphic designer named Michael Girard. He used it to show off a new software that processed movement, but it resonated with people and became an internet sensation.

Ever since then, we saw memes explode into a whole separate entity. One very famous stage of memes will be very familiar to any millennials in the audience, back when people still debated whether it was pronounced “meam” or “me-me.”

These memes were very simple and consisted of a background image, top text, and bottom text. The image was usually used to express a mood or tone while the text provided a quick set-up and punchline, giving it a joke-like presentation with the added visual detail. Memes looked like this for a few years, and sometimes unique trends would start within it. For instance, people might make a different joke but use the same background image.

There was also the impactful “trollface” phase, which seems to be having a bit of a comeback recently.

The original artist of the trollface was a Tyler-mon, better known by his deviantART handle Whynne. The first of these exaggerated illustrations was featured in a comic about the uselessness of “trolling” (aka “messing with” and sometimes “bullying,”) people through online games, but they took hold. They were used as unique emojis for a time and were sometimes copy-pasted to make unique comics that would deliver a punchline similar to the toptext-bottomtext we looked at earlier.

Since then, the nature of internet memes has exploded into something complicated, fleeting, and sometimes abstract.

Created by Redditor u/Humorous-Marvin

The memes featured in this image are all mostly expired, though I must admit that Shrek seems eternal. Most of them are pretty tame as far as memes go, too. There are also deep-fried memes, memes that look more like hieroglyphs than images, and plenty more. The trends come alive and then die at such a speed that sometimes it’s a bit hard to keep up.

Some have started to compare modern-day memes to dadaism (some even call it neo-dadaism!) or absurdist humor, and they’ve certainly changed from when they were essentially joke-telling. Now, they’re almost a form of communication unto themselves and have become a part of normal speech. For instance, “yeet” existed as a word far before the famous vine, but the vine helped it turn into a meme. Now, it almost feels odd to call it a meme at all. It’s just a word that people use for various purposes. It’s become a mark of internet culture to see all of the memes that you know, such as the current trend of seeing if you’re on “straight tiktok” or “gay tiktok,” which determines what sorts of audios and memes you’re commonly exposed to by the app’s algorithm.

Sometimes, memes even intercept with each other and are used in a singular image. Test your meme knowledge by seeing if you can decipher these ones:

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