The surprising academic origins of memes

There’s never a dull moment on the internet, and that’s got a lot to do with the fact that the content shared online is constantly changing – thanks in part to the creativity of users who remix, parody or caption popular images or videos, to create memes.

Punchy and humorous, memes are the perfect fodder for an internet culture shaped by viral sharing and creative participation. They may seem basic, but from a linguistic point of view, they’re surprisingly sophisticated. Meme creators use “multimodal grammar” (in other words, images and captions) to express and share ideas and opinions. By tagging their friends in memes shared on social networks, people add their own personal meanings to the content.

Despite their popularity, it’s not widely known that the meme has its origins in the world of academia. The term “meme” is rooted in evolutionary biology, and was coined by Richard Dawkins in his famous 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. According to Dawkins, a meme is “a unit of cultural transmission or imitation”: his examples include the concept of God, nursery rhymes and jokes, catchphrases and fashion trends.

The word comes from the Greek “mimema”, meaning imitated, which Dawkins supposedly shortened to rhyme with gene; a nod to the similarities between the survival of certain memes through the evolution of culture, and the survival of certain genes through the process of natural selection.

Going viral

Internet memes, as we know them today, are units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated and transformed by users. Limor Shifman, a key scholar in the study of internet memes, argues that a meme is not a single idea or image which is spread across social sites, but a group of items that were created with awareness of each other. For example, the famous Grumpy Cat meme is not the cat himself, but the whole set of memes generated with his image.

The first meme on the internet was actually the sideways “smiley” – 🙂 – created in 1982 by American computer scientist Scott E. Fahlman. The practice of using punctuation markers to show emotion was quickly picked up by internet users all over the world, and several other expressions, such as 🙁 and ;-), were added to the repertoire of the “emoticon” meme.

In 1998, when the web was enjoying more mainstream use, the Hampster Dance meme – depicting rows of dancing hamster GIFs, on the website of Canadian art student Deidre Lacarte – became popular. By the end of June 1999, the site had been visited 17m times. It later spawned a catchy song by the Cuban Boys and a viral remix by Hampton the Hamster, as well as several copycat sites. This meme, as simple as it may be, is one of the first examples of viral digital content.