In a world of ever increasing digitisation, it is safe to say that a new era of cultural transmission has dawned upon us, with this era mostly being known for the continual expansion of memes as an Internet commodity. The 21st century’s version of the ‘Cultural Revolution’ has taken the Internet by storm, and people across the globe of all ages have found themselves subconsciously (or consciously?) infected by this cultural insurgency.
But what exactly is a ‘meme’? What does it even mean? Well, for starters, the word ‘meme’ was coined way back in the year 1976 (I know, I’m surprised it existed that long ago too) by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins through his book published in the same year titled ‘The Selfish Gene’. The word ‘meme’ was blended with a Greek word mimeme — which means something imitated — alongside the English word ‘gene’, which essentially gave birth to an epoch where Rickrolling is as ubiquitous of a presence as smartphones nowadays.
Wait, what? What does culture have to do with evolutionary biology in the first place? Well, Richard argues that cultural transmission, similar to genes, creates some sort of pathway to evolution. Essentially, a meme is simply an idea — which could include anything from fashion to a catchphrase — where that idea or element, as a result of the Internet, quickly becomes a social and cultural phenomenon, especially through imitation. The old saying ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ couldn’t be more true in this aspect. More often than not, memes are commonly used in a humorous manner, with Internet users putting their creative chops to the test in ultimately enhancing the meme’s popularity.
The evolution of memes
In recent times, memes have emerged as one of the primary modes of communications throughout the Internet, particularly amongst the younger generations (looking at you, Gen-Z peeps). Anything can be a meme, may it be a GIF involving the Simpsons to various still photos of farcical Donald Trump facial expressions seen during the United States presidential election- memes have imbued pop culture at an unbelievable rate. Heck, if you’re lucky enough, being the subject of a meme could turn you into a celebrity, literally overnight!
But how have memes evolved over the years? Surprisingly, memes were actually a thing before the World Wide Web was made publicly available in the year 1991. Yes, memes existed before the Internet. Back then, items which were considered ‘memes’ were basically just an expression of a cultural idea, societal style or behaviour which were subsequently replicated due to its particular resonance with certain communities.
In more modern times, say, a little more than a decade ago, popular memes in the earlier days of the Internet took the form of weird pictures with big blocked captions — utilised and shared upon for casual entertainment. Today, the influence of memes stretches far beyond the aforementioned usage; today, memes are an integral part of social media communication that folks, both young and old, consume on an insanely regular basis. These memes can be derived within an endless array of mediums; from popular, lighthearted sitcoms like Modern Family, to actual products such as the design language of the latest iPhones being widely mocked on Twitter upon release, memes are simply omnipresent in a digital world where it’s utterly impossible to envision a world without them.
The inevitable rise of meme culture can be said to be a direct consequence of the Internet beginning to acquire a much more central figure in people’s lives compared to the not-so-distant past. Memes that originally began as bare-bones image edits have evolved into mediums capable of standing on their own two feet in disseminating information which can be readily understood by millions of people worldwide at a glance. This is the evolution of the meme.
First meme on the Internet
So, which meme exactly was widely considered to be the first meme on the Internet? Well, the dancing baby animation (as shown above) takes that particular honour in its stride. The dancing baby meme was actually a 3D-rendered animation for a 3D art program called Character Studio, way back in 1996.
It is worth noting that 3D technology was still a novelty at the time. The acclaimed film Toy Story had only been released a year prior to the meme being generated, as was Sony’s nonpareil 1st generation Playstation video game console. This helped the dancing baby gain widespread recognition relatively quickly, appearing in new broadcasts, commercials and even featured in a comedy-drama television series in 1998 titled ‘Ally McBeal’.
Although it is fair to say that with the technology present at the time, the less-than-graceful dance moves by the baby could use substantial work (or maybe even some additional dance classes). But who’s judging, eh?
What makes a meme good?
So, what makes a meme successful? Or more precisely, what qualifies as a good meme? Memes can range from witty phrases and catchy tunes to even questionable stills from videos. The key to being a well-received meme does not necessarily lie in the medium or format of the source material. Instead, a successful meme is one that is capable of capturing a specific mood or vibe that, even when taken out of the original context, many people can still relate to. The more relatable the meme, the more likely the chances of people sharing their interpretations of the meme with others- therefore ensuring the increased exposure of the meme to an increased number of people.
The most important part of a meme is the idea behind it. After all, memes often provide a clear representation of common situations we may find ourselves experiencing throughout our lives. They can be seen as a way for people from all around the world to bond over similar experiences or react to a ridiculous situation together. As long as an image or any form of media has any significance to a wide audience who reference it regularly, it may be possible for the media in question to be considered as a meme.
Why do people use memes?
To get a better understanding of why people use memes, we asked around to get a general idea of how some people view memes. (Names used may be fictional or otherwise and are based on the respondents’ preferences.)
Question 1: Why do you use memes?
Anonymous: To make the world a better place for you and me <3
Chloe: I use memes mostly in messages as it provides fun and funny visual aids which help in conveying my thoughts and feelings that text cannot do. I also like to use memes in presentation slides which helps in increasing the relatability between the audience and I as they can resonate with the meme.
It appears that memes, as shown by these confident answers, provide entertainment and are believed to be able to become a form of communication with people hailing from different backgrounds. It could be fair to say that, like emojis or GIFS, memes can be a language of their own.
Question 2: What is your favourite meme, and why?
Anonymous: Because I relate to it and it represents me as a human being deprived of my luscious desires.
;): because it reminds me that I can become a chad in my life (to be brave, calm and confident in yourself I guess) XD
Chloe: I like this meme because I resonate really well with it haha. Not only that, seeing that meme makes me laugh all the timeee
Based on these responses, the relevance of the meme to the audience is important. Only then will the content of the meme resonate emotionally with them, prompting the meme to become more memorable and even more capable of invoking inspiration.
Question 3: In your opinion, what is the future of memes?
Anonymous: In my most honest and personal opinion, I do think that memes will spread like the plague where humans will only communicate through memes and by means of memes only. This is the world of memes, memes shall prevail. WE ARE MEMES.
Juan: stonk. memes are everywhere. everything in the world can be a meme actually, cuz as u see, the vid with a horse standing on the balcony is a meme, say bread while thumb up is a meme, a bread falling is a meme, and pablo.
;): Yes, memes will probably stay in the long run as new memes will surely emerge, due to the infinite cycle of supply and demand of memes
Chloe: I think memes will continue to flourish with new and different forms and formats depending on social change as well as the constant evolvement of peoples’ creativity.
The respondents strongly believe that memes will be a huge part of our lives in the future, and it’s not too surprising either. Memes already surround us both online and offline and as trends come and go, memes may adapt to suit the times.
It is clear that memes have been around for quite some time and due to the wide range of topics memes can cover as well as their versatility, they will likely be around for much longer. Memes provide a unique way of communicating and commenting on topics that users are passionate about, and have already proved themselves as an important phenomenon in digital culture. As said by the respondents, memes are everywhere, memes will continue to flourish, and memes shall prevail.
By: Chris Phang and Jia Xuan