Maryam Mohseni '24
At their creation, memes were just weird pictures shared on corners of the internet. Today, they’re part of everyday social media interactions and have emerged as one of the most important mediums of communication. But what even is a meme? The easier question is, what isn't? According to an analysis by Smithsonian Magazine, memes can be anything. From something as monumental as a belief in God to catch phrases, idioms, or a type of music can become a meme. Today the general understanding of a meme is anything that’s a joke on the internet, usually including some form of self-deprecation, sarcasm, or irony. Memes can be images, videos, or text based, and can be reproduced, republished, or reinterpreted by others, leading to an entirely different rhetorical message.
The word meme was first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. In his book he defined the word meme as a unit of cultural transmission. He claimed that anyone that sees a meme is a replicator, but since humans can’t copy one thing exactly the same, we modify or create new memes. So, if we are constantly in the process of creating new memes, then how have they changed over the years?
The first memes to ever appear were the classic top text/bottom text on the picture which emerged with the rise of the internet in the early 2000’s. These are the simplest forms, as there was little technology back then. At the same time were Rage Comics: multi-panel illustrations that would depict a frustrating, ironic, or somehow hilarious real-life situation. The minimal amount of effort required to create the comics (the vast majority were constructed in Microsoft Paint) helped make them widely accessible, contributing to their virality and status as a commonly understood method of communication, with each face (such as the now-ubiquitous Trollface) becoming recognizable regardless of language.
Then, in 2007, Rick Rolling opened the door for more video-based memes, as did the creation of YouTube. The site’s emergence as a legitimate content-hosting platform led to an increase of video memes, starting with early examples like “Numa Numa” and “Chocolate Rain” and eventually giving way to movement-based memes like the Harlem Shake, which invited people to join in on trending content.
Tumblr’s emergence as a social media platform prompted memes’ rise to the mainstream. Most meme content on Tumblr was taken from the aforementioned original sources, reaching a wider audience. Memes accounts were created and accumulated mass followings, a practice that would continue with Facebook and Twitter accounts later.
Of course, a timeline of memes wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Vine, which, during its short life, transcended YouTube as the foremost producer of video-based memes. With only six seconds and no upload feature- creators were forced to be innovative, finding loopholes either by recording part of the original content on a computer screen or recreating it themselves. Early Vine memes were often as simple as pronouncing things wrong. Then the app was updated so that users could create memes using content from outside the platform as well. Most Vines considered iconic today came from this second wave of content creation, and we’re all better off for it.
Over the past two decades, memes have transformed from a somewhat underground form of casual humor to becoming an everyday part of social interaction. Often, they are used as comedic devices, but they’ve also become capable of spreading ideas, opinions, and information. The internet is filled with all sorts of people and ideas, and memes will constantly evolve every year. What will memes look like 10 years from now? Only time will tell.