Brief History of Memes

Owen Nassif, Staff Writer

Memes are commonplace in today’s society. Due to their comedic and satirical value, they have managed to cement themselves into pop culture and are used across all types of social media platforms. But in order to understand how they became what they are today, you have to take a step back and look at the long and storied history of the meme.

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The word meme was first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to describe how information spread between members of a society in his book titled The Selfish Gene. It wasn’t until many years later that the first meme as we know it today came about. The first memes were significantly simpler than the ones of today, normally consisting of an image and a sentence. Their purpose was simple: to provide comedic value oftentimes through relatable circumstances. These simple memes first gained their popularity on web forums such as 4chan. The fact that they were easy to make and share with other people made them gain popularity. They mostly consisted of a picture with text on either the bottom, top, or both parts of the image. Designed to be relatable, these early memes paved the way for what we see today.

We can’t talk about the growth of memes without talking about the popularity of social media: This quote from Complex sums up the growth of memes very well: “The rise of the meme in popular culture coincides with the increased presence of the internet and social media in people’s lives. As more and more time is spent online, memes have become the perfect vehicle for facilitating information, humor, and opinion.” Social media’s growth in popularity allowed for memes to be shared amongst people at the speed of light. While memes were getting posted on many social media platforms, the most important for the development of memes was Tumblr. As stated by Complex, “With Tumblr’s emergence as a social media platform also came memes’ rise to the mainstream. A lot of meme content on Tumblr was ripped directly from the aforementioned sources, and thus reached a wider audience.” Nowadays, memes can be found all over social media, and have successfully planted themselves into mainstream media.

Something that goes hand in hand with memes would have to be the viral video. Oftentimes a short video of someone dancing, or short comedic skits, these videos get millions of views and are huge contributors to set the trends in social media. These viral videos are almost as old as memes, and just like memes, owe much of their popularity to social media. Things such as YouTube and the ability to upload videos to Twitter made viral videos mainstream, which in turn lead to the creation of platforms designed for the creation and distribution of these viral videos.

If you look at the current state of memes it is obvious that they have gone through a monumental change. As the younger generation of kids grew up, so too did the complexity of memes. While memes remain similar to there predecessors, many have started to become more abstract in nature. These memes maintain the original meme formula but have “evolved” content-wise. These abstract memes do not always make sense, and often require some form of prior knowledge or deeper level of comprehension to truly understand. Often these memes seem to lack any sense, and to most would come off as wired or unfunny.

With the rise of social media came the evolution of memes. Nowadays, viral videos create social media trends, and memes have evolved from bottom text to abstract. These two sources of satire and comedy are going strong and have surly planted themselves in the lives of many and show no signs of dying out any time soon.