The internet has given us many things. The ability to settle bets quickly, order a pizza without speaking to anyone, and finally learn what that weird kid from second grade ended up doing are all great. But still, the humble meme is among its finest fruits. Who knew just a few lines of text on a photo could end up making the world laugh?
Memes are ubiquitous on today’s internet. They made their way from the depths of the web to TV, news, and even college classes—but where did they start? What exactly makes something a meme, and does it have to be on the internet to be one? How have they changed over the years? Let’s do a deep dive into everyone’s favorite internet phenomenon: the meme.
What Is a Meme?
One of the first things that comes to mind when you say the word meme is usually an image with a few words on it (usually in the Impact font). However, those are actually “image macros,” just one of many types of memes. Generally, classifying something as a meme means it has some sort of potential for virality. A meme, by definition, can be spread far and wide on the internet, be it an image, a video, or a GIF. It can even be as small as a single misspelled word, as long as it has the potential to be shared.
What do we mean? Well, some of the most popular and memorable memes were things like salt bae or the keyboard cat video. The dancing baby GIF (which made its way from internet phenomenon to quintessential 90s TV show Ally McBeal) or the Rickroll prank. Even just simple phrases like “epic fail” have become memes. How do you do, fellow kids?
What Does “Meme” Mean?
In popular use today, meme generally means that it has something to do with the internet. However, the term arose long before the internet was common. Ethologist and author Richard Dawkins coined the term in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene. He used the word to refer to phenomena that spread from person to person within a specific culture.
The word meme comes from the ancient Greek word “mimeme,” which means “imitated thing.” Some who have written about the concept point out its similarity to a gene. Memes self-replicate and mutate as time passes, like a gene. They also drive the culture forward in the same way that genes drive the human race forward. One familiar example of this would be the classic graffiti character “Kilroy” (the little guy whose nose peeks over a wall). The face of Alfred E. Neuman was also actually a meme before Mad magazine adopted him as their mascot.
What Was the First Meme?
While Dawkins first used the term in 1976, the idea goes back further than that. We could easily go back in time and identify hundreds if not thousands of images and phrases as having the essential qualities of a meme. For example, it could be something as simple as the phrase “Don’t worry, be happy.” It could also be something with a long and complicated history, like the three hares motif, a pattern that people have carved into buildings for centuries. It originated in the Sui Dynasty in China before migrating into Europe and England. Its rapid spread qualifies it as an ancient sort of meme.
Different thinkers have identified different memes as being the “original” example of the concept. Some have pointed to a century-old cartoon from a satirical magazine called The Judge as being the so-called first meme. Ironically enough, the cartoon almost seems like a winking version of the current “Expectation vs. Reality” meme. But while it does bear shocking similarities to contemporary examples, it would be basically impossible to say what the first real meme was. After all, it depends on your own entire subjective definition of what exactly a meme is.
What Was the First Internet Meme?
Now today, we might keep up with memes through social. People tend to get memes from Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook groups where members make and post memes dedicated to a specific subject (i.e. The Simpsons). But long before the advent of social media, people were sharing memes via email, message boards, or through Usenet groups. At that point, in the early/mid-90s, streaming video wasn’t yet common, so most memes were images, GIFs, or Flash videos.
In their January 1994 issue, Wired columnist and attorney Mike Godwin referred to memes as an “infectious idea.” His article introduced memes to many readers who might have been unfamiliar with the concept. Godwin actually uses his own notorious concept, Godwin’s Law, as an example of what a meme is. Godwin’s Law, of course, is the idea that any internet argument that goes on long enough will inevitably end with one side comparing the other to Hitler or a Nazi.
This recognition was one of the first times that anyone introduced the idea of an internet meme to a larger audience. Godwin introduced his “law” in 1990, and would purposefully post about in it forums where people had made a Hitler or Nazi comparison. Soon after, he watched as others who’d seen him post it re-posted it themselves, making it one of the earlier examples of memes.
What Do You Meme?
The “Dancing Baby” meme, mentioned earlier, came about in 1996, spread via email chain. In it, a 3D-animated baby writhes around to the sounds of Blue Swedes’ “Hooked on a Feeling.” Its creator meant for it to demonstrate the capabilities of a 3D animation software, but the baby took on a life of its own when it became a meme. Another early example is “All Your Base Are Belong To Us” from 1998, a mistranslated phrase from a video game. Then there was the Hampster Dance from 1999, an animated single-page website featuring animated dancing hamsters and an earworm of a song. It was created in a competition between sisters to see which of their websites could get the most traffic.
There’s a strong visual component to memes as we know them today. For that reason, many websites cite the Dancing Baby as the first internet meme. But in terms of pure virality, which is the essence of the meme, Godwin’s Law is stiff competition. Perhaps we should start an argument about it, which will eventually devolve into name-calling and accusations of…
In all seriousness though, it once again comes down to your definition of the meme. There were likely plenty of jokes and images tossed around newsgroups and message boards in the early days of the internet. Many of these eventually spread far and wide and would have qualified as early memes, but have since been lost to the sands of time. Godwin’s Law and the Dancing Baby just happen to be the two examples that have stuck in people’s memories. In their resilience, they’ve made themselves part of meme history, fighting for the title of “first meme,” however accurate that title really is.