icture this: It’s 2001. You’re on your desktop computer going through your inbox when you notice an unopened email from your best friend titled “CHECK THIS OUT!!” You open it to find your friend has sent you an animated picture of dancing hamsters and you’ve never seen anything more hilarious in your life… Believe it or not, the above scenario likely chronicles your first-ever encounter with a meme.
Memes are commonly seen on the internet and social media today, however, they come from humble roots. The earliest internet meme can be traced back to the late 1990s, and meme culture has drastically evolved since then.
Let’s take a walk down meme-ory lane (Sorry, that was a terrible pun.) and see for ourselves …
Richard Dawkins: The Meme’s Founding Father
The meme’s story begins in 1976. In his book The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first coined the term “meme.”
Referred to as a culturally transmitted behavior, style, or idea, Dawkins used memes to explain the tendency humans have to copy and redistribute cultural aspects to those around them. Dawkins suggested that just as genes can be altered and recopied through mutations, memes can be altered, imitated, and socially transmitted throughout a culture.
Dawkins wrote about memes before the creation of the internet. However, the same concept can be applied to internet memes — the medium of transmission is just different.
The Dawn of Internet Memes
Looking back at the first memes may seem primitive, but relatively speaking, the first memes hit the internet very recently. In the early 2000s, internet memes started as an underground, casual type of comedy found mainly on obscure forums and sites.
Because content editing techniques were just developing, the earliest memes didn’t dazzle their audiences with impressive presentations. Early memes were usually images formatted with text written above the graphic and the punchline written below. Others focused on animated dancing hamsters, while some were weirdly obsessed with Chuck Norris … Ahh, the early 2000s, what a time to be alive.
Creation of Meme Characters
As memes gained popularity and became more mainstream, meme characters began to emerge. Meme characters, such as the Philosopraptor, Rage Comics, and the Success Kid, were popularized, imitated, and remixed. While possibly over-used, these characters still had us saying “ROFL!! XD” in the early 2000s.
Turn to Video
Memes began to take on a different shape, especially after the popularization of YouTube post-2005. As viral videos were being sent around the internet at rapid speed, videos were quickly becoming memes. Charlie bit fingers, David went to the dentist, a duck bought grapes, a cat with a Poptart torso trailed a rainbow through space ... and all these videos got hundreds of millions of views on YouTube.
In 2012, the meme world was changed again when Vine, a short-form video app, rapidly became popular. The app, which housed arguably some of the most iconic video memes of all time, proved that video memes were just as, if not more, effective than images. RIP Vine, forever in our hearts.
Moving forward through the history of memes, Twitter proved to be a true meme-producing powerhouse. As users posted images, text, and videos, memes were created everyday. Twitter also made it easy for users to imitate and remix already popular memes.
Twitter users usually pride themselves on being up-to-date and love seeing posts about current events in realtime. Because of this, memes on Twitter became more relevant and timely than ever before. If someone posted a meme about a televised sporting event or performance in real time, it could go viral within the hour.
And lastly, as we end our stroll down meme-ory lane, our last stop is TikTok memes. TikTok, a short-form video app, is widely popular with Generation Z and has taken the meme world by storm.
One thing particularly unique to TikTok is the audio meme. Due to its in-house audio library, users are able to select popular audio clips to play in their own videos. In doing this, TikTok audio clips have turned into memes themselves.
“Huh? What? Okay.”
“Don’t be Suspicious”
The Future of Memes
Memes have gone from lowkey internet humor to essential components of our daily social media experiences, and it doesn’t look like they’re going to fade away anytime soon. Due to memes' major prevalence in internet culture, more and more brands continue to shift their focus to online native advertising and the utilization of memes.
These memes can take any of the aforementioned forms or capitalize on new and trending meme formats. The brands that successfully use memes in their marketing strategies are those best positioned to reach their Gen Z audiences.
Memes will always be highly dependent on social media, pop culture and current events because they are all intertwined. As any of these aspects begin to change or shift, so will memes. So, here’s to the future and many more hilarious memes. Hooray!