To those who rarely delve into the online world, practices such as meme sharing might seem a little strange or even ridiculous. But to the snickering delight of an entire online culture, the meme is the king in a world where inside jokes are for sharing. Not in on the fun but want to be? Here’s a look at the history of the meme, from its pre-Internet origins to the mass–sharing we see today.
The word meme (rhymes with team) first appeared in the 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. In it, Dawkins describes the way behavioural information can be spread culturally, without us even noticing. This cultural information, wrote Dawkins, spreads through imitation and replication, often taking the form of graffiti or jokes and silently reinforces behavioural norms within a culture.
Historically speaking, memes were slow to spread because the masses didn’t typically travel widely or communicate with those outside their immediate surroundings. This, of course, all changed with the rise of the Internet. Today, the masses have access to instantaneous global communications, and memes are spreading like never before.
As some may remember, one of the first Internet memes was a simple animation of a dancing baby. Due to the novelty of file-sharing at the time, this baby spread like wildfire through email inboxes. There were often slight variations to the design or animation of the baby, as each user added his or her personal flourishes to the design or animation. It wasn’t, however, until memes spread beyond the Internet and into popular TV shows, commercials and music videos that the meme status would be solidified.
These days, simple animations are no longer enough to capture the public’s attention. Millions of images and videos are shared every day, but only the funniest, most bizarre or most poignant are picked up and shared as memes. Hilariously terrible songs, funny comics and catchy dances are some of the most common Internet meme types, but no format is more ubiquitous than the image macro: the official name for those pictures you often run into online that have two lines of text imposed over the image it speaks to. As the meme is shared and reinterpreted, the image and one of the lines of text remains static, while the second line of text is varied between each iteration and typically delivers the punch line or main observation of the meme.
Memes are often seen as a low form of cultural expression, not having value beyond their ability to deliver a cheap laugh. But while they may not always live up to the academic definition that Dawkins originally gave for them, memes do have some unique communicative value of their own. Take the example of a common image macro based off a famous scene from the 2001 film The Fellowship of the Ring. Two lines of text are layered over an image of actor Sean Bean in character as a fantasy warrior. In the original film, the character delivers the line, “One does not simply walk into Mordor,” referring to the difficulty of travelling to a hostile land. In the meme version, the top line of text retains the, “One does not simply” part of the quote, but the second half of the quote is replaced by any activity that, contrary to its perceived simplicity, is difficult to accomplish.
This image has been shared so widely and so frequently that even without the accompanying text, this previously neutral image of Sean Bean has come to carry specific meaning: difficulty. In the same roundabout way, the image of Kermit the Frog drinking tea has come to represent judgement, and mallard ducks have become synonymous with wisdom. But much like a foreign language contains no meaning to those who do not speak it, in order to understand what concept a meme symbolizes, you must already be in on the joke. t8n
Despite their similarities, a meme is not the same as a viral video or image. For Internet content to be viral, it must simply be shared widely. Memes require not only wide sharing but also variation in form.
Did You Know?
The word meme is short for mimeme, a Greek word meaning “imitated thing.” This word family is also where we get the words mime and mimic.