A Concise History of the Meme

According to a March 2020 survey, one-third of Internet users in the United States and the United Kingdom had looked at a meme within a day of taking that survey. Millions of users each day get news, comments, humor, and in-jokes in the form of memes.

Just what is a meme, though, and how did they rise to such prominence online? Where does the word come from, and why did it come to describe what it does? Why did video game Metal Gear Rising call memes “the DNA of the soul,” and how has that become a meme unto itself?

Keep reading for the history of the meme.

History of the Meme: The Word

The word meme has a short history, even though meme history extends all the way back into human history. Coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, it comes from the Greek word for imitation.

In its original sense, “meme” was a broad word. It had nothing to do with the practice of using a meme template to create pictures and communicate ideas online. Instead, it referred to any cultural or behavioral activity or idea people transfer.

Things like Christmas, singing Happy Birthday while you wash your hands, and the practice of hanging artwork would qualify as memes. Cultural significance plays a major role in what constitutes a meme.

Image Memes

When most people think of memes these days, though, they mean image memes. Image memes have won out as the most common types of meme.

These started on Usenet, an early slice of the Internet similar to social media. Users would share images that resonated with other users on that part of Usenet. This continued through the mid-1990s and into the 2000s.

As memes developed in the 2000s, different types of meme emerged. Simple memes like lolcats and demotivators started from simple premises, like attributing human qualities to cat pictures or parodying common motivational posters. Meme use allowed users to build community and common understandings of the world.

Memetic Mutation

Later memes from the 2010s and onward began to develop from the “exploitable” format that showed up on Internet message boards. An image would be noted as exploitable if one could use it to express a complex idea (or a funny idea) without much effort.

Many of the memes commonly seen on social media follow this format. Consider cases like the “silence” meme, in which a crab shoots a smaller crab with eye lasers. This meme has been expanded to apply to everything from brands to political ideologies.

As video has gotten easier to post online, many of the principles applied to image memes have also been applied to videos. Simple, short segments similar to sketch comedy get remixed and built upon.

History Remixed and Reposted

The history of the meme, like most histories, remains a living document. As social media platforms change, they enable new types of memes. Likewise, as cultural norms change among Internet users, what constitutes an acceptable, easily-accessed meme will continue.

If you like learning about how the Internet came to be the way it is, you should check out our social media and digital marketing sections. We’ll cover many of the ins and outs of the modern Internet.