Despite their popularity in the internet age, you might be surprised to learn that the term “meme” was first coined in the 1970s, long before internet culture became a part of our everyday lives.
The concept of the meme was first mentioned in the biologist Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene, where it was used in an entirely different context, but with its evolutionary roots already firmly planted to blossom into the phenomenon it would become decades later.
Dawkins described it as a “unit of cultural transmission”, writing,
“We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.
“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”
With the growing popularity and widespread use of the internet, a meme became something entirely different from what Dawkins initially described it as, although its use as a tool of cultural transmission still stood its ground. Describing what is now considered the first real example of an internet meme, Lev Grossman defines memes as “ideas and jokes and fads that spread across the Net” in the 9 July 2008 edition of Time magazine.
“Here’s an example: there used to be a tradition on 4chan that every Saturday people would post pictures of cats. It was called Caturday. People added captions representing what the cat would say if cats could talk. One day somebody posted a shot of a fat gray cat looking at the camera and saying “I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?” Somehow that picture escaped 4chan into the wider Web. Without knowing where it came from, somebody saw it and liked it enough to start a blog about it: icanhascheezburger.com. Soon other people were making their own Caturday-style pictures and calling them ‘lolcats’,” writes Grossman.
Since that very first meme went viral, we have seen thousands of others, with smartphone and online apps to create their own memes allowing users to put their own spin on whatever the flavour of the day is.