Ever heard of a Lolcat, or been “Rickrolled”? Do you know about the “planking” craze that swept social media a few years ago, or even the dancing hamster from the Internet’s dark ages? If so, then you have encountered a meme, or an Internet meme to be more specific. The concept of a meme, as understood most widely, refers to something comical, in bold type, shared on social media or through email, involves a picture or video, and often uses popular catchphrases from movies or television shows to offer a critique on or mockery of a person or situation. Their spread is viral, usually through “shares” or “likes,” depending on the social media platform, and they can quickly rise from relative obscurity to become cultural mainstays of the Internet. The Internet’s love for cats, for example, is almost as old as the web itself, and memes are not a recent invention. In fact, the term meme takes inspiration from a very sophisticated scientific theory about the role of genes in evolution.
The idea of the meme comes from a groundbreaking 1976 book The Selfish Gene by English ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and best-selling author Clinton Richard Dawkins. A meme, as described in his book, is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads among a population of people. It carries with it ideas, symbols, or practices that can be passed on from one person to another person through writing, speech, specific gestures, or any other “imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.” The term “meme” is a neologism, or a word that is particular to a certain group but which is not part of the larger lexicon. Though largely known in some of the more popular mainstream media for his opposition to theistic religion, prior to this Dawkins’ theories about a gene-centered evolutionary track was revolutionary for its time and introduced his scientific concept of the meme.
He theorized that memes are subject to “natural” selection, the theory by Darwin that the species most adapted for survival in a given situation will survive and perpetuate and those that are not will not survive, and that memes undergo “variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s success.” Dawkins theory of the meme gave rise to the field of memetics in the 1990’s which seeks to link the scientific concept of the meme with identifiable evidence using the scientific method.
The popular Internet meme is something people can imitate in action, concept, a catchphrase, or some type of media that is spread through viral means and inspires imitation. Usually it can be done for humorous or comedic effect but also for satirical, critical, and serious application as well – in other words, not every meme is funny or lighthearted. Some Internet memes are tied to specific Internet cultures and subcultures, and even some massively multiplayer online games like EVE Online have their own subset of memes which employ the jargon and in-game knowledge that make theme specific to the EVE subculture on the Internet and otherwise inscrutable to outsiders.
The term coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene was applied to Internet culture, in particular usenet and message boards that popularized the media-based Internet memes, by Wired magazine’s Mike Godwin in 1993 in an attempt to explain how viral media spread on the Internet and became a part of wider Internet culture and even sometimes pop culture itself. Dawkins is careful to distinguish between his concept of the meme and the Internet meme in that the Internet variant can be affected by human creativity. In addition, they are completely traceable and their origins are analyzable, unlike the scientific version whose roots may be lost to time.
Some of the more popular memes mentioned above, such as Lolcats and “planking,” have even become big business in their own respect. While most memes are often associated with powerful and influential Internet culture forums like 4chan, Something Awful, or Reddit, many have also gone on to become a big business. I Can Has Cheezburger is one of the most prominent examples of this phenomenon – spinning off the popular and ever-present Lolcats meme into a full-fledged Internet-based business. Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami are co-founders and owners of the website which launched off of the now iconic “I Can Has…” phrase. Often this phrase is paired with something nonsensical or comedic within context.
The origins of many of the Internet’s most popular memes can be traced using KnowYourMeme.com, which will not only detail the background of the meme in question but will also show its origin and variants.
Here is a list of some of the most influential memes to ever grace the Internet:
An animated short from Jason Steele of ShortCow.com, Charlie the Unicorn is one of the most-remixed flash animations on the web. The titular unicorn’s quest to the mythical candy mountain is an odd subject for one of the most viewed memes on the Internet.
This nonsensical song by then-grad student Tay Zonday has been featured on everything from South Park to alt-rock band Weezer’s music video for their track “Pork and Beans.”
From a news report out of WAGA in Atlanta, this reporter’s epic tumble on air is probably most memorable for its immediate cringe factor and the harrowing sound she makes after she falls. In an attempt to gain some type of leverage over her opponent, Grape Stomp Lady hurriedly mashes the grapes underneath her feet after time is called and, in a moment of lapsed control, tumbles over the rim of the bucket and off the stage, falling headfirst into the audience. Really, the sound she makes is too much.
If you’ve seen anything about the invincible Chuck Norris, congratulations, you’ve seen one of the web’s most prolific memes. Each of these memes is easily identifiable because its focus is on Chuck Norris and one of his many amazing qualities. If you’re not familiar with the Walker Texas Ranger Star, don’t fear – most people who make the memes are unfamiliar with the action star’s previous work but that doesn’t stop his fighting spirit from living on in one of the most popular memes of all time.
I Regret Nothing
This is another popular meme with more variants than there are snowflakes in a blizzard. Typically it features someone in a compromising situation, implying that whatever preceded beforehand was so worth the social expense of looking like a shambolic mess that there are “no regrets” about the consequences. This one is quite common because of its ease of adaptability and, unlike most of the other popular memes, can be applied almost instantly to any situation.
Dancing Baby (Old School)
If you’re old enough to remember the terrifying 3D polygon model of a dancing newborn then you’ve been with the Internet long enough that you don’t need to read the rest of this explanation. For those of you who don’t know about this thing that was a thing at one time, well, here are the basics: 3D technology was cool, a model of a flesh-toned infant dancing to music (sometimes without) was considered hilarious, and it was a completely different time. It was 1996.
Peanut Butter Jelly Time
If you’re a fan of family guy then you know about Peanut Butter Jelly Time. Really not a lot more to say about this meme other than it is catchy. The original was a gif shared on the web that featured a banana swaying back and forth like Bryan does on Family Guy. For some reason, this was a big deal. Gotta love it!
World of Warcraft is a gaming sensation to this day, so it’s difficult to imagine that the original game came out so long ago. The game is such a mainstay of the internet that it has spawned its own memes as part of its own subculture. Most well-known among these memes is the Leeroy Jenkins meme. What the deal is with this meme requires some explanation: In MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) like WoW you team up with other online players to conduct what are called raids – massive dungeons filled with elite enemies and coveted loot that often require planning and strategy on the part of the players leading others into the raid. This coordination is sometimes crucial to success and survival in the raid, as some bosses are capable of destroying the entire party quite quickly if things are not done correctly. As a raid leader is explaining the situation to his assembled squad, one player charges the raid boss and scream Leeroy Jenkins and thus was born one of gaming’s biggest memes.
All Your Base Are Belong to Us
Another classic video game meme comes from an incorrect translation of the 1989 Japanese video game Zero Wing for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The phrase is now somewhat mainstream and well-known to gamers.
Diet Coke and Mentos
Diet Coke and the candy Mentos equals a volcanic eruption. It is also one of the oldest memes on the web.