4 Min Read

The History of Memes

(or me-mes, or mémés): Where have they come from?


For those who don’t know a meme is a concept, usually humorous, that rapidly goes viral. A meme can take multiple forms, images, GIFs, videos, et cetera. Let’s compare the horoscopes meme or tag yourself meme to ‘BITCH ME TOO.’ Entirely different mediums but they are still considered memes. Memes can also be shared in a singular community or throughout multiple, the later usually being more popular. 

Interestingly, memes are not exclusive to the internet, nor was the term made in relation to internet humour. The term meme was first coined in 1976 in relation to biology and anthropology. The neologism was first used by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins describes a meme as any idea that would influence a culture. Anthropologically, a meme is passed on from one person to another, most commonly within a singular culture but can travel into other cultures.

One of the best examples of a meme, which predates the internet, would be the games we played as children, such as ‘Patty Cakes’ or ‘Ground is Lava’ or ‘I Spy’. Each one of these games has some form of cultural significance, and we know about them because of how they were passed from kid to kid or from kid to adult to kid. 

Dawkins argues that evolution is a meme. Possibly the most important meme we have. 

Other examples of memes include fashion trends, such as perms or shoulder pads; slang; hit songs. (Common examples include: ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Ring a Ring o’ Rosie’.)Other phenomenon such as the Cool S, graffting toilet stalls and dad jokes are all memes. 

When asked in an interview about the adoption of his term by the internet, Dawkins said this came as no surprise considering the internet was the ideal environment for memes. 

It can be argued that the first meme was the ‘Dancing Baby’ – an animated baby that danced along to any music. Although, memes could easily predate the ‘Dancing Baby’. ‘Dancing Baby’ was one of the largest viral videos of the late 90s. Since the 90s, memes have become a vital part of internet culture. 

An issue with the evolution of memes being so random is their unpredictability. There is no way to guess what the next meme will be or how memes will change in the coming months. You also never know how long a meme is going to last.

However, it is quite clear to see that as meme culture grows, the average life span of memes seem to degrade. This isn’t true for all memes, but in recent years a meme is lucky to survive a week in cycle. The ‘you know I had to do it to em’ meme has been around since 2014 but ‘left shark’ lasted maybe two days (RIP). 

There is also the question of what will become a meme and what won’t? A large number of memes are influenced by pop culture (‘Dark Kermit’, ‘Miss Vanjie’) or political statements (‘Change my Mind’). However, almost anything could become a meme, like ‘Damn Daniel.’

When it really comes down to it, asking how memes have evolved isn’t the right question. It’s why memes have evolved? Simply, communication. Ultimately a meme is a form of communication, a way of expressing emotion. Memes have evolved to become far more relatable. They spread political propaganda, can be used as advertisement, discuss fundamental issues or just make light of serious issues.