If you're reading this, then you probably know what a meme is. They have become an important part of internet culture, particularly social media. Memes can range from simple jokes to a global inside-joke that makes no sense to people outside of the culture. However, most of us don't really know how memes really began.
Spoiler: If you think they began with the pitifully bad 2010 memes, you're wrong.
The Origin Of Memes
The first time the word "meme" was used was actually back in 1976. Yes, this was the year the first email was sent, and the only people who could access the internet were usually, well, important people. Important like the Queen of England and the American Government important people.
Where memes actually began was in a book: a book about evolutionary biology, of all the things in the world. Now, if you're wondering what memes have to do with evolutionary biology, just stick with me for a minute more.
Richard Dawkins' book "The Selfish Gene" was groundbreaking for several reasons. Apart from his brilliant scientific theories and arguments, this is the famed book that gave birth to the word "meme."
“Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word: Culture.” -Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Dawkins said that a new pathway to evolution had begun. This was culture, cultural transmission, or the spreading of ideas. To describe these ideas that spread between people, he coined the term meme.
Memes came from the Greek word "mimeme", which means imitation. Dawkins wanted a shorter term that was similar to "gene", and hence he shortened it to meme. And thus began a legacy that even Dawkins could have never predicted or imagined, but represents his idea perfectly in the context of today's world.
Unintentional Online Stardom
Well, you're probably now wondering how The Meme went from a scientific book to an entire online art form (yes, memes are art, fight me.)
Experts say that a 1994 op-ed by Mike Godwin called "Meme, Counter-Meme" is responsible, to an extent. This was when Godwin explained how he came about creating Godwin's Law. (Every conversation will eventually lead to a comparison to Hitler and the Holocaust.)
Godwin did this in response to a "meme," except that's probably not what most people called it at the time, that "everything can be compared to the Holocaust." He then seeded his law at various strategic points on the internet, to get people to stop doing this because it "trivialised the actual horror of the Holocaust." Godwin called this strategy "memetic engineering."
While this did not begin memes, it was probably responsible for people to begin referring to memes as memes.
Of course, memes have come a long way since Godwin as well. Back then, most memes were text. Today, they're more often gifs, pictures, or videos that may or may not include any text. LOLCats were probably the first "real meme" in today's sense of the word. You know, those images of relatable cat expressions with the godawful font for top and bottom text.
Memes now often serve as templates for various ideas: one meme is translated into various contexts that all make sense. The distracted boyfriend meme and the "is this a pigeon?" meme are two famous recent examples.
Of course, then there are memes like Vibe Check, which are less accessible and make no sense to a large population. These differentiate the "internet culture" folks from less avid users.
Dawkins' Memes Are Still Relevant
The most notable thing about memes is that despite it having been 44 years since Dawkins' use of the word, they still represent what he theorised.
Although no more genetic or reproductive in nature, memes are still cultural units that spread ridiculously fast and influence several people. He indeed used a metaphor of a virus to represent the phenomenon in the last chapter of his book. As Dawkins himself describes in a 2013 interview with Wired,
The meaning is not that far away from the original. It’s anything that goes viral. So when anybody talks about something going viral on the internet, that is exactly what a meme is and it looks as though the word has been appropriated for a subset of that.”
Just that, instead of talking about sexual reproduction, memes now represent the evolution and flourishing of different online ecosystems. The closer the meme is to a universal theme or emotion that everyone can relate to, the better it survives.