What is the History of Internet Memes?

Memes today are recognized as funny, amusing, or interesting items that are spread widely through the Internet. It has been an ever-present part of modern online life. But have you ever wondered how did it all start? Have you ever thought how they evolved? And where did the term “meme” come from, anyway?

Origin of the Word “Meme”

The first published case of the word meme (pronounced “meem”) dates back to Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. In the book it had a meaning other than its current one, as it is “a unit of cultural transmission” or an idea, style, behavior, or usage that spreads from person to person. Basically, it’s a cultural equivalent of “gene.”

Dawkins coined the term because he was trying to figure out whether there’s a measurable unit to describe how ideas spread and propagated throughout generations. Simply put, a meme is to an idea, what a gene is to a physical trait. Dawkins needed a noun to convey the unit of a cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. “Mimeme” was a suitable Greek root, but he wanted a mono-syllable like gene, so he settled on “meme.”

The word wasn’t considered official until 1998, when it earned a spot in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Were There Memes Before the Internet?

The modern form of the word meme refers to the idea of replication, selection, and evolution of ideas all working themselves out in the internet. But was this concept common before the internet? Yes it was.

Memes have been around even before the existence of the internet. It showed up even as early as 79 AD in a Pompeii ruin, and as late as 1970s, in graffiti form.

Frodo Baggins, the fictional character from The Lord of the Rings, also was part of a meme. The phrase “Frodo Lives!” was plastered in buttons, graffiti, T-shirts and even bumper stickers on cars during the 1960s to 1970s. The people who used it felt that Frodo was an example of a metaphor for being held down by “The Man.”

The First Internet Memes

During the early Internet ages, memes were spread primarily through email, Usenet discussion communities, messageboards, and newsgroups. It encourages interaction between people.

The first viral internet meme can be traced back to a dancing baby spread around the internet. In 1996, graphic designer Michael Girard created a software showing how movement could be programmed and projected in a computer. His final design was a model of a baby showing different cha-cha movements. Girard’s employer then sent out the demo to developers to show their software’s capabilities. One of the demos was sent to a LucasArts employee, who then turned the video into a GIF and shared it via email and forums, making it an early viral internet sensation.

Another popular internet meme was the Hampster Dance in 1999. It was a website featuring rows of animated GIF hamsters dancing to a speedy version of “Whistle Stop,” a song used in the credits of Disney’s Robin Hood. The website was created by a Canadian art student Deidre LaCartewho competed with her friend and sister to see who can generate the most web traffic.

After having only 600 views after eight months, her website suddenly got viral. Four days after that, her site was visited more than 600,000 times, gaining popularity through blogs, email, and even bumper stickers.

The Modern Meme

With the widespread use of social media sites like 9GAG, Reddit and 4Chan, it has become easy for memes to gain popularity and go viral overnight. These sites they can be shared on other social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have more visitors as well.

Before the internet, memes tend to have a cultural or political significance, and their popularity lasted much longer than they do compared to memes today. While some memes can still show longevity, a lot of the memes go from viral to forgotten and outdated in a short period of time. This is because of how easy it is to make a new meme, and how fast the internet shifts.

Memes also moved away from cultural or political topics to show more pop-culture references, as well as sarcastic and funny life observations, making it easier for them to spread like wildfire across the internet because it’s so relatable.

We know memes today were popular as images. It usually included a demotivator, image macro, photoshopped image, advice animal, and comic. The demotivator image, which includes a black background with white all-caps Impact text, was a parody to inspirational and motivational posters, which mostly contains sarcastic or funny messages. The text of the meme is placed at the top and bottom of the image itself.

One case of meme evolution is LOLCats and the whole language that surrounds the meme itself. LOLCats uses a creative type of spelling in their memes to personify cats depicted in the images. This started in 4Chan as a tradition – every Saturday, people would post photos of cats and they would add captions representing what the cat would say if they can talk. They use spelling mistakes and improper tenses for comical effect, like the meme of a fat gray cat saying “I can has cheezburger?” Somehow, this meme escaped 4Chan and became popular in the wider Web. Soon enough, other people are making their own Caturday-style memes and calling it “lolcats.”

And on the course of internet history, there has been a lot of popular memes that became more famous than others, such as:

  • Distracted boyfriend
  • Success kid
  • Doge
  • Grumpy cat
  • Scumbag Steve
  • First world problems
  • Ermahgerd girl
  • Be like Bill
  • The most interesting man in the world
  • Shut up and take my money!
  • Domo
  • Disaster girl
  • “One does not simply walk into Mordor”
  • “I will find you and I will kill you”
  • Exit 12
  • Side-eyeing Chloe
  • Guy tapping his head
  • White guy blinking
  • Bad luck Brian
  • Gavin
  • Overly attached girlfriend