The surprising origins of memes


Ah, memes. They can often say all we need without us ever having to type a word. In fact, thousands of us use them every single day, but where did they come from? The surprising origins of memes shows us there might be more to them all than we ever believed.

The beginning of the word

Believe it or not, but the word meme was first used in the book The Selfish Gene back in 1976. Richard Dawkins explained that a meme is a unit of cultural transmission or imitation. This includes everything from fashion trends to catchphrases and jokes to religion. The word was designed to rhyme with gene as Richard said many memes have been able to survive the changes in culture and natural selection – sometimes for no apparent reason.

The surprising origins of memes

The first meme

Scott E. Fahlman was the person behind the first meme after he sent a sideways smiley. It wasn’t long before people from all around the world started using different punctuation and letters to express their emotions through text as internet users everywhere caught onto the trend. Sad faces and winking faces were soon added to the collection as the emoticon meme spread. All of a sudden, people had a way to show their emotions from behind a screen without having to rely on words alone. It was a breakthrough moment.

Going viral

The internet continued to grow in popularity as more and more people were taking to the world wide web. 1998 marked the year of one of the first animated mainstream memes as Hampster Dance was uploaded by Deidre Lacarte. The site had been visited more than 17 million times in just one year, and it wasn’t long before there were even songs and remixes of the cartoon characters. This is thought to be one of the first times that digital content went viral around the world.

Advancing memes

Scholar Limor Shifman believes that internet memes are more than just the character. In fact, she thinks they are a collection of images that all come from the same source. The latter half of the ‘00s marked a new time for memes as it seemed as though many people turned to animals for meme content. However, they were changing. Now, people were adding funny statements to the images instead. It seemed as though no one was safe as characters from across the planet were soon the photo of choice for memes everywhere.

The surprising origins of memes

Forever changing

It appears as though memes are forever changing, and it might not be long before we see an entirely new type of meme once again. Now, many people have fallen for video clips – with or without text. Viral videos of celebrities or the likes of Leave Britney Alone and Charlie Bit My Finger have spawned several clips of their own with more continuing to appear everyday. As the internet continues to grow, it looks like we’ll be greeted with more and more waves of memes as a result. Perfect.

Many of us use memes every day. After all, why bother typing out a reply when you could use a meme instead? Although we see them on our phones and use them in conversations, the surprising origins of memes shows they have come a long way in all these years. Oh, memes. Where would we be without you?