Memes through the ages: Where did they come from and who should we blame for the jokes of the internet


Since the ‘awkward, giant computer’ beginning of the internet, people have loved using technology to make jokes. Humor is ingrained into humans and humans in turn ingrained humor into our internet usage: through memes. 

Meme (noun): an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.

Memes were first mentioned in 1976, by British scientist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins was attempting to connect biology and genes to cultural behaviors society often passes down to other people, thus coining the word ‘meme’ from the greek word mimeme – meaning ‘mimic’. 

It’s hard to track down the very first meme, however. Since ‘meme’ in its simplest definition means something that is mimicked, everything from the use of wheels to even religion is a meme – because one person did it, and then everyone else copied. Even language is technically a meme, at its bare roots. 

The true meaning of ‘meme’ in recent years has changed. Now, most people recognize memes by their secondary definition – an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online, especially through social media. 

If we look exclusively at ‘amusing or interesting items’ that were begun online, we are led to a 3D rendering of a dancing baby by graphic designer Michael Girard, also known as the ‘Oogachacka Baby’. This gif was making the rounds through the internet in 1996. It had even gained enough popularity to be featured in Ally McBeal, a popular show that ran from 1997 to 2002 (this likely means nothing to most of the readers here, but hang on with me). 

After that baby, memes became a bigger part of the internet. In 2003, 4Chan was created. 4Chan was an anonymous image sharing website that had become a hub for sharing memes, like rage comics and troll faces.

4Chan led to the creation of Reddit in 2004. Reddit became the next big meme sharing platform and still is currently in use by ‘memers’ and other communities. 

In 2004, memes like the poorly translated dialogue of video game Zero Wing (“All your bases are belong to us”) and “The Main Difference Between Europe and America” (often an edited image either degrading Europe or the US) were popular. 

Memes like the Forever Alone face, the “Y U NO” guy, trollface, and nyan cat became the most recognized in 2011. 

2014 leads to Doge, My Little Pony and Shrek memes to reach the top. 

In recent years, Among Us and the Little Berries and Cream Lad have reinvigorated the meme cycle. 

Memes have been a part of the internet since the very beginning. It’s built into the genetics of internet culture. Memes are often cringy, yes, but you have to admit that they’re a pretty big part of the internet.