Memes are the cornerstone of the internet. The funny little pictures and short videos have become so integrated into pop culture that they are gate passes to the internet! You can’t do anything online without being confronted by a meme or two, and this new phenomenon has gone through dramatic changes in a staggeringly short amount of time. This is why the evolution of memes is such a fascinating topic.
Surely you must have seen a recent ‘deep-fried’ meme and wondered how did we get here?
Well, before we can answer how the evolution of memes happened, we need to figure out what this is?
What Is a Meme?
By definition, a meme is an element of culture or system of behavior passed down through imitation rather than through DNA sequences. The word was derived from the term meme, the ancient Greek word for an imitated thing. This definition, however, is too broad for our purposes.
After all, if any imitated behavior is a meme, then everything from a famous bit of graffiti to an ancient cave painting of a hand would be considered a meme. Researchers have been trying to pinpoint what does and don’t constitute a meme for years with little to no consensus.
Luckily for us, we are focusing mainly on internet memes, and the identification of these kinds of memes is much more intuitive. This way, we can say graffiti, praying before eating, and wearing trendy shoes are not memes; a funny cat, on the other hand, is a meme!
So, for this deep internet dive, a meme is an image, video, social networking post, or phrase ( usually humorous) that is spread around the world with the aid of the internet. Now that we know what an internet meme is, we can get into a brief history of the evolution of memes.
Internet History 101: The Evolution of the Memes
To begin this saga into the evolution of memes, we must cast our minds back eleven years to 2009. Michael Jackson’s Thriller has just come out and is being played on every radio in the world alongside artists like Flo Rida, Owl City, and The Black Eyed Peas. YouTube has been around for a few years, and creators NigaHiga, Fred, and Smosh are the most popular internet celebrities of the time. This is the exact environment that would birth the first ‘official’ meme.
Early Memes- The Beginning of The Evolution of Memes:
Before the very first Internet memes, there were ‘early memes.’ Memes that were not exclusive to the cultural history of the internet, or that were too sporadic and sparse to be considered proper memes. This group includes ridiculous chain letter emails (the Nigerian prince scam being a popular one) and funny videos that a few hundred people had watched.
Funny clips and mail fraud existed way before the internet, and nothing had been added to these things to classify them as memes rather than just ‘a cool thing on the internet.’
More importantly, however, these new memes didn’t have far enough of a reach to be memes. Think of it this way, if you record your friends doing something comical and then you show it to everyone you know, that isn’t a meme, it’s just a funny thing that happened to someone. Of course, this is practical information and should not be taken as a priori! Sadly, there were no meme scientists at the time to record their findings on the evolution of memes for us.
One thing this era did bring to the internet was the ‘de-motivational poster.’ These parodies on motivational posters had all the makings of a classic meme- they had a funny image paired with a witty caption, and the template was shared over new social networking sites like 4chan and Facebook. More importantly, however, these posters/old memes could be created by anyone, and that is what kick-started the meme explosion we are living in today, also initiating the evolution of memes. It was stage one in the development of memes.
Top and Bottom Text Memes:
The first memes followed an elementary template: set up in the top text, punchline in the bottom book, background picture to enhance the joke. Meme generators started popping up left and right, and suddenly everyone had a chance to be a comedian. All the tricks you had with your friends, you could now easily put on the internet and be part of a much larger social group. Something about this was naturally appealing to our genetic code (explored in the evolutionary theory and meme psychology section of this article to understand the evolution of memes)
Fundamentally though, top and bottom text memes become such an integral part of popular culture because they were new! Before these memes, observational, relatable comedy was limited to small groups of friends or stood up comics with polished routines. Now, content creation was available to the masses, and that created unparalleled excitement. The possibilities were endless, and a social change was just around the corner.
As these memes started to become commonplace, a sort of meme library emerged with different images being used for different experiences or types of jokes. Success Baby, Bad Luck Brian, and Advice Animals are all examples of archetypal memes that had a specific meaning that was unique to the image and would not make sense if the image was removed.
Chuck Norris facts were an example of pushing a meme to its limits to see how far you could take it. In the evolution of memes, these were the predecessors of the modern meme.
Rick Rolling- Evolution of Memes:
Rick Rolling was the first instance of the evolution of memes traversing the internet subculture to become a global phenomenon. The trend started when some pranksters started hiding links to videos of Rick Astley’s song “Never gonna give you up” amongst appealing or exciting connections. Soon people weren’t just linking to the song. They were playing it in public to unsuspecting passers-by or classmates.
Click here to read more about internet pranks.
Rage comics were the first real experiments with the art of comedy itself and the third stage in the evolution of memes. Polished cartoons, comics, and sitcoms were now seen as outdated, and the fast-paced world of internet memes seemed like the perfect way to experiment with form and structure. Rage Comics had an extensive library of meme faces and characters that users could play with to create their comics. The images were badly drawn in essential software like Microsoft Paint.
The silly images, the lack of poise, and the freedom to be stupid are what drew people to Rage Comics. The Garfield style relatable comedy of “hating Mondays and loving lasagne” was tired and overdone in mainstream media. As the theory of evolution tells us, any living thing must adapt to survive, and comedy did just that from 2000 – 2011.
Rage comics also had increasingly more complicated language and context that made it nearly incomprehensible by outsiders. This started the trend of memes being gate passes by which people could identify other trendy and exciting people and shun so-called “normies” ( people ill-versed in internet culture). The internet was now a haven for the weirdos, freaks, and angsty teens, and their language was memes.
Tumblr is a social media blogging site that became popular in 2011 as a non-judgmental platform for people to find and create content about their niche interests. This is where the ‘socially awkward’ came to feel accepted, confident, and free to do whatever they wanted. Tumblr is attributed with creating the different factions of the internet from Hipsters to Emos, Fandom blogs to Memesters. This is why many people still swear by Tumblr today.
Tumblr’s contribution to meme history is paramount as the freedom it provided allowed memes to get weirder! Tumblr text posts were long rants, ‘shower thoughts,’ and documentation of bizarre thoughts and experiences.
It was the solidification that memes could be whatever you want them to be. Tumblr is also attributed to the popularisation of the ‘reaction gif’ – moving images used in place of words or emojis to represent how one was feeling.
Since memes were now common knowledge, the meme economy had to speed up and compensate for the mainstream success and subsequent oversaturation of memes. If memes were to remain the language of the cool, they had to keep creating newer and fresher memes to survive the evolution of memes.
This lead to the creation of the ironic meme where memesters would use an old or stale meme and use excessive sarcasm to poke fun at the people who were just discovering the old meme format.
Deep-Fried, Dank, and Surrealist Memes:
As Twitter became more popular (2012 onwards), the picture and caption style meme saw a comeback. This time, however, as explained above, memes were faster and harder to keep up with. Formats included the Drake, Big Brain, and, more recently, Everything is Cake. Memes are so fast that even as this article is being written, at least two memes are dying and ten being born!
Another social change was that now Gen Z began to take over for the creation of fresh new memes from Millennials. The need to be better, different, and more refreshing than them leads to a rise in surrealist memes with formats like dungposts, deep-fried and dank memes. These memes were created to be nonsensical to anyone not in the meme demographic. Ok, boomer is an excellent example of this as it aims to alienate the Baby Boomer generation who are seen as ignorant, uncool, and “problematic.”
Vine and the Meme Renaissance:
Vine heralded in an era of short-form comedy where fast-paced six-second clips turned into viral videos quoted around the world. People integrated these Vines into their daily lexicon, and once again, the lines between the online and real worlds were blurring. 2014 was a clear example of memes influencing and creating pop culture. Even today, most teens use phrases like fleek, finna, I sure hope it does, and Becky– all started by vine!
With the death of the Vine app in 2016, a meme renaissance began. Viners and new Gen Z creators migrated to TikTok, where the style of comedy found on the vine was recreated and even quoted verbatim. Older meme formats in new and improved forms like Rage Comics see a return through the Chad and Doge memes. TikTok E-boys and E-girls are also variations on the Tumblr emos of 2011. The meme renaissance is well and truly upon us.
Meme Psychology and Evolutionary Theory: Why Do Memes Evolve?
Have you ever seen your parents say LOL or share a Minion meme? Did you feel that wave of cringe wash over your body? Did you decide you were never going to say or use those memes again? It’s not your fault; it’s in our evolutionary psychology to do so.
Let’s think about it. The theory of evolution tells us that it is in our evolutionary biology to seek out social groups to be a part of. As we reach teenage and are preparing to fly the nest, the human brain starts to actively seek out young, famous, healthy peers to form packs with. After all, it’s easier to survive amongst firm, non-disabled friends than it is to do so alone or with older, weaker peers.
Howard Giles proposed a language theory called Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) that suggests people try to emulate the language of those they wish to associate themselves with. Thus teenagers use memes to be more like the popular kids’ groups they want to be a part of. Evolutionary psychology backs this, suggesting it is why teenagers are always the innovators of internet culture.
The cringe or unease felt by young people when older generations appropriate their culture. It is why Gen Z wants to be different from Millennials and Millennials different from Baby Boomers. The evolution of memes is simply a complex, symbolic system of group selection deeply rooted in social psychology to separate Us vs. Them. And one day, we teens are going to have to accept that we are no longer in charge of the memes, and the evolution of memes won’t matter to us.
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