Memes aren’t just entertainment —
they’re an evolving universal language and reactionary tool to undermine institutions of ideology, advertising, and even society as a whole. To understand the phenomena of memes is to understand how culture has been shifting in the past 100 years, more specifically the past 30 years. Much of this can be contextualized through the lens of postmodernism. Postmodernism as a term often gets distorted, but it’s essentially a social attitude of irony, skepticism, and relativism that culturally developed in response to the modernist era of the 19th and 20th centuries, which had popularized attitudes like objective truth, morality, and hierarchy. In layman’s terms, civilization as we know it today was structured on certain principles to create order and postmodernism critiques the effects of those principles.
Take the historically unprecedented shifts of the past century for example. We’ve seen mass movements against major political and religious structures, world wars, rapidly expanding technological advancements, the explosion of pop culture, instant access to information, and reality as we know it shrink more into our devices every day. As social attitudes scatter and general trust in preexisting institutions declines, reactive energy rises. This energy has most recently been funneled into the fusion of technology and people, which is highlighted mostly online through social media.
Social media in its current state has been around for nearly 30 years, but started to become an international phenomenon around 2008-10, reaching hundreds of millions of users. Since then we’ve seen trends come and go while patterns developed along the way. Both anonymous and public platforms grew relatively parallel to one another over time creating different cultural attitudes and understandings of the online world. In order to grasp the overarching themes of meme culture we have to go through the history of social media, viral content, and the role that specific platforms have played in pushing it into the mainstream. Since we're still in the infancy stages of understanding the causal effects of all this, it's important to take as many relevant factors into account as possible. Lets start with social.
How Social Media Created the Groundwork for Memes
Each year we see social media entwine more with every corner of the world. It steers the ship of advertising, hosts billions of people, and is responsible for countless real world consequences. Without it, the aggregation of memes in the globally connected sense wouldn't exist, so it's important to know the history of how we got from Kodak to Snapchat, VHS to YouTube, dial-up to broadband, or Yahoo! Messenger to Facebook.
Believe it or not, social media dates back to the early internet days, even before the world wide web was created. The first bulletin board systems came to life in 1978 where users could direct chat, share software, and read news. In 1985, General Electric created GENie, which was an online service for GE that peaked around 350,000 users and included forums, and other internal services. In 1986, Listserv debuted as a mailing list in which users could contact multiple people with one email. This was revolutionary at the time. Internet Relay Chats first appeared in 1988 and were used for file/link sharing and keeping in touch. Then as soon as the world wide web was released in the early 1990's, social media began rapidly evolving. 1994 saw the introduction of The Palace, which was a program that allowed users to interact with one another on a graphical chat room server. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) launched in 1997, as did the first official social media site, SixDegrees. It was in this period that more niche comedy websites started becoming popular as well such as Something Awful (1999) and Homestar Runner (2000), which hosted various internet phenomena making them an early harbor for memes and viral content.
The first blog is generally considered Links.net in 1994, which was the personal page of Justin Hall. The blogger Jorn Barger later coined the term "weblog" in 1997, which was then shortened to "blog" by blogger Peter Merholz in 1999. Once blogging became popularized, there were social media and blog sites popping up in lockstep like LiveJournal and Xanga in 1999, Friendster and LinkedIn in 2002, then Myspace and Gawker in 2003. These sites were mostly public profiles where you could connect with friends, follow news, or interact with strangers from around the world. This laid the groundwork for eventual platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Oh yeah, and Google sure helped jump start this whole timeline. See something you like? Now you can instantly share it with the world.
Online Culture Takes Over The 2000's
As these social networks developed, a series of anonymous web communities began developing as well. Between 2003-2007 we saw the rise of 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr. These online communities came together through shared interest of video games, music, TV shows, drama, relationship stories, social criticism, and various other forms of pop culture, often being obscure. This emergence of both public and anonymous social media platforms tapped into the human psyche in a way never observed before in history and we began noticing it right away. People became "addicted to their devices" as headlines postured. Just like kids used to pass each other notes in school, phones and computers became the secret language medium for passing information. Music went from a CD you needed money to buy to a file you could illegally pirate on sites like Limewire. Porn went from being a magazine that you needed to be 18 to consume, to being accessible with the click of a button. Almost instantaneously there was a generational gap created between most older and younger people in how this new technology was understood and utilized, and we're still seeing that ongoing effect in 2018.
Much of these changes coincided with the accessibility of computers and even more importantly, smartphones. Smartphones have their own lengthy history to parse out, but became prominently integrated between 2005-2010 as devices became more widely available. This is when the competition for people's attention expedited at wild rates. New models coming out multiple times a year, new social media platforms becoming popular, and a true defining of the age. Millennials (born between 1981-1997) largely regard this period as the glory days of the internet because they grew up as it was exploding, just like Gen-X (born between 1965-1979) largely regard 1999-2005 as the glory days since they experienced the start of it all.
To keep up with consumer demands around 2010 we saw cultural meme aggregators and curators become more prominent like Buzzfeed, which tracked viral content, popularized listicles, and created a platform centered on shares rather than views. By this time there were millions of people who had been online for years and notable splits began where the general masses kept moving with trends like jumping from Xanga to Myspace to Facebook, while that mainstreaming pushed certain subgroups deeper into online culture. This subsequently popularized sites like YouTube, 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr as they became flooded with users exploring the deep web trying to escape the mainstream. When you have an increasing number of people involved in anything, that's bound to happen. This split began redefining the separation between public and anonymous based social media sites. The more niche something is, the more cool it's perceived to be and special it really is, which is why so much of popular online culture is derived from those deeper online communities.
As these sociological and psychological changes began affecting society, mostly being young people, there needed to be new adaptations to process the chaos. There was no education or researched methodology in place to help assimilate anyone into these newly integrated worlds. The more confused, isolated, anxious, and overwhelmed everyone got, the more they took to memes as a way to relate with one another through humor, absurdity, and irony. Tabling the broader issue of healthcare in society, even bringing up the mental health issues magnified by social media has always been near impossible, especially for kids. How do you explain to someone that you have a cool phone, tons of friends online, and access to all the world's information, but you're still lonely? Or depressed? Or anxious? Bringing up these types of issues has always be stigmatized, but especially in the age of instant access, which perpetuates the attitude of "you don't know how good you have it" from older generations. This disconnect and these problems in cognitive development through the age of social media are still being evaluated through clinical studies at this point, but with the spiking mental illness epidemic most people concede there's a strong degree of relation.
A recent micro-example of this occurring is through the world of Instagram, which has become integral to people's public identities. Users want to be perceived a certain way that makes them seem happy or fun or popular. This has been seen notably through the hipster wave that arguably started socially in 2008, then as a marketing trend around 2010. The period highlighted being "authentic" and "natural," pushing health trends, craft trends, and all the rest. The more that wave pushed, the more it created an undercurrent of "finstagrams"(fake Instagrams) that started popping up around 2015. Finstagrams are where people could curate secret feeds to vulnerably be themselves by goofing off, sharing memes, and posting unpolished pictures, while their official Instagram feeds were more PR friendly and glamorous.
During this time period there were entirely separate sociological, economic, and geopolitical conversations around the world involving events like Y2K, 9/11 and The War On Terror, the new atheist movement, global warming, the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, globalization, the tech explosion and competition between Apple and Microsoft, plus much more. As technology and the internet began its rapid integration, so much was put into motion during increasingly short periods of time and this mass compression is largely responsible for the reactionary movement of meme/online culture.
The Explosion of Viral Videos
One of the most common ways contemporary memes spread is through viral videos. Prior to YouTube, people would copy VHS tapes and share them with family or friends. The Winnebego Man was a classic viral example of this in the late 80's. In 1996, Michael Girard wanted to show that movement could be programmed and projected via computers, so he designed the Dancing Baby, which was eventually turned into a GIF and virally spread. 2 years later we saw the Hampster Dance website by Deidre Lacarte that was viewed 17 million times in its first year up. These types of GIFs evolved quickly. Many people remember ROFLcopter, a term originated on a Warcraft III forum for trolling purposes. In 2004 Roflcopter.com was registered, featuring a GIF with the abbreviations ROFL and LOL as blades. These are some of the earliest examples of animations becoming videos, becoming memes.
YouTube launched in 2005 and really started taking off in 2006-07 with videos like Leprauchan in Mobile, Alabama, Star Wars Kid, Evolution of Dance, The Juggernaut, Powerthirst, Keyboard Cat, and RickRoll'D. It could be argued that YouTube is most responsible for the explosion of meme culture. It created a space for creators to build their own media channels, something unimaginable before. If you wanted entertainment you went to TV or the movies or radio, now anyone could create. Suddenly millions of people who never would've been able to express their skills to the world had the chance to do so.
Because memes are spread through familiarity, the cultural masses were drawn to YouTube. We saw the birth of some of the most iconic videos of all time between 2006-12 like Shoes, Charlie Bit My Finger, Double Rainbow, Charlie The Unicorn, Hide Yo Kids, Taking The Hobbits To Isengard, Chocolate Rain, The Greatest Freakout Ever, David After Dentist, It's Peanut Butter Jelly Time, Rebecca Black's Friday, Grumpy Cat, Charlie Sheen's "Winning,"and Cash Me Outside.
Many regard Kony 2012 as the most viral video in history to that point with 100,000,000 views in 6 days, until Gangnam Style was released a few months later surpassing it with 3,000,000,000 views in 5 months and staying the most viewed YouTube video until Despacito reached 5,600,000,000 views in 2017. Viral videos have created some of the most viral and utilized memes worldwide, lending themselves to be remixed, parodied, and altered via every possible medium.
How Memes Have Evolved
Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene as a means to explain how information spreads throughout culture. Internet memes are a subset of this concept. Using this framework there are countless examples even dating back through pre-internet history that fit the definition. Take Kilroy Was Here as an example, which was a cartoon that started popping up all over the world during WWII, mostly in graffiti. In the 1960-70's, Frodo Lives similarly began popping up all over America as part of the hippie movement in graffiti, t-shirts, bumper-stickers, etc. To this day people still celebrate 420 in cannabis culture, a meme that originated in 1971 between high school students. Internet detectives have uncovered tons of these examples, some are even being revived like the Keep Calm and Carry On poster that was commissioned in 1939 by the temporary Ministry of Information in England, or this meme that yesterdays-print.com uncovered from The Judge Magazine in 1921 that may be the very first of its kind.
Like previously stated, many of the first contemporary known memes were actually animations like Dancing Baby and Hamster Dance created in the 90's. Other future defining trends were also popping up around the world at this time, like the invention of emoji's that originated on Japanese mobile phones. Perhaps the earliest static example would beGodwin's Law. This is one of the oldest memes still being used today. It was coined by Mike Godwin in 1990 on a discussion board and says "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1," meaning the chances of someone mentioning Adolf Hitler or Nazis increases over time. Godwin is on record saying he hasn't wanted to police people's usage of his meme, but during the rise of political polarization in 2016-17, many white supremacists/nationalists began citing it to defend their behavior online. After the Unite the Right Rally, he tweeted this and spoke out on the subject.
Memes didn't just take hold in videos or images, but phrases and art as well. We saw the origins of terms like YOLO that began as a meme in the early 2000's. Smash Mouth's song "All Star" was already a hit in 1999, but was made famous in the title of Shrek in 2001. Since then it's been memed, parodied, and shared to oblivion. Another pop culture example of this is simply... Nicolas Cage. Know Your Meme cites the earliest memes of Nicolas Cage to 2005, including "Nicolas Cage Loves Mario Kart," "Cage Rampage," and more. In 2009, the Internet was blessed by Tumblr site Nicolas Cage As Everyone, a blog solely made for photoshopping his face onto everyone. Slender Man, who was a fictional supernatural character created by Something Awful user Eric Knudsen, became internet lore this year as well.
2008-09 was when memes first began surfacing from deep online culture onto mainstream online culture, but it wasn't until 2010-12 that they truly became mainstream. The origins of most of these popular first memes came from the early 2000's or even late 90's. Ones like Kanye Interupts, Rage Comics, Deal With It, One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor, Condescending Wonka, Success Kid, Philosoraptor, It's A Trap, Ancient Aliens, All Your Base Are Belong To Us, Scumbag Steve, Chuck Norris Facts, U Mad, The Most Interesting Man In The World, Hide The Pain Harold, and Conspiracy Keanu were among the first widespread across platforms like Facebook. Along with Tumblr trends like Nicolas Cage's Face On Things, there were others in 2012 like when blogger Miryuu Chan posted a GIF of Belle from Beauty and the Beast with Nigel Thornberry's face, launching a new viral series of putting his face on Disney princesses and anyone else.
It would also be crazy not to mention the phenomena of sharing pet media here. Cute animals and pets have been shared since the dawn of the internet, and this time period saw an explosion of them on all platforms from Advice Dog to Grumpy Cat to LOLCats to Doge, and so on. Once memes became mainstream certain elements of pop culture became goldmines for mass produced content. Shows like The Office or Spongebob are among some of the most widely shared memes of all time, as well as video games like Fornite or Minecraft from more recently.
While this was happening there were many resources launching that aided in the spread of memes. Rocketboom launched Know Your Meme in 2008 as a database for meme history and analysis (without which this article would be impossible to write). In 2011 it was acquired by Cheezburger Network and now has over 2,700 confirmed meme entries. In 2010 websites like Meme Generator or IMGFLIP became popular free platforms where anyone could generate memes by uploading images and adding Impact font in top/bottom text formats.
Once memes had become part of everyday life, it wasn't long until they started sparking interactive movements. There were positive trends like The Ice Bucket Challenge, which was a dare game where you had to pour a bucket of ice water over your head and nominate people for the same challenge in the next 24 hours and if they failed, they were expected to donate money to ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). In 2015 #TheDress became an internet wide debate via a Tumblr post that had people choosing sides on whether they saw the colors #BlackAndBlue or #WhiteAndGold. And who can forget Harambe? The 17-year-old gorilla who was tragically killed after a child fell into his enclosure in 2016, causing the world to solidify him as a meme legend.
In recent years there's been a shift from most memes being shared with preexisting content on them, to actual templates being used where people could create their own versions. This expanded interactive quality and created all new possibilities for things to get "meta." Between 2016-2018 some of the most prominent examples have been Roll Safe, This Is Fine, Netflix And Chill, Arthur's Fist, Distracted Boyfriend, and Is This A Pigeon?
As of 2018, a new wave of viral memes hits online culture every month. Looking at the calendar below created by @trigoMEMEtry you might note some pop culture memes from early in 2018 that already feel like a lifetime ago. The pace constantly increases. Now anytime a viral moment happens, whether it's in the news, on a TV show, during a sports game, or whatever, it instantly becomes a meme.
2014: Lets Get Political
2014 marks the year when memes changed forever. They became political in the mainstream. Many early adapters knew this would happen eventually, since they had been political in the deep web for a long time. If you think about it, most presidential campaigns throughout history have always been memes, just not immediately recognized as them. Take Obama's 2008 "Hope" posters for example, or the humorous reactionary meme, Thanks, Obama. Political memes may have existed before, but the 2016 election cycle took them to a whole new level.
Once the cycle started hyping, political polarization exploded. In 2014 a new culture war emerged through the #GamerGate controversy over diversification, harassment, and other social criticisms in video games. This changed the landscape of gaming communities all over the internet. While this was happening, large YouTube communities began political commentary, podcasts took off, Twitter was given new life with Donald Trump at the helm of media attention and Hillary Clinton getting in on the memes as well, such as with her "Delete Your Account" tweet, and every running candidate or relevantly related campaign person was memed to oblivion. 4chan introduced a level of trolling to the mainstream in this time that was completely unprecedented and is still being studied today. Deep web terms like "redpilled," "triggered," "virtue signal," and "cuck" became common in right wing circles and spread like wildfire.
In this time period, we saw reactionary movements on all sides of the political spectrum. One could argue the narratives looked something like this: the social justice left's rise was in reaction to traditional institutions. The alt-right's rise was in reaction to the rise of the social justice left. The far right's rise was in reaction to the rise of socialist-leaning attitudes on the left. The far left's rise was in reaction to the rise of fascist-leaning attitudes on the right. These narratives have bled into one another and simultaneously created countless activist groups and subcultures, resulting in many echo chambers where meme communities can grow isolated from outside influence. Some notable new groups or movements that have formed in the past few years are #BlackLivesMatter, #MAGA, #MeToo, The Intellectual Dark Web, and Chapo Trap House.
Reddit's Role In Popularizing Memes
Reddit has become a central hub for fan bases, hate bases, and general information hubs for nearly anything you could imagine the past several years. Fan of Joe Rogan's podcast? You'll find entire spreadsheets meming his mannerisms. Fan of Shane Dawson's YouTube channel? Here's a starter pack. Love Seinfeld? Harry Potter? Are you interested in pictures of bread being stapled to trees? Reddit has all your bases covered.
Sites like Reddit have always attracted tech-oriented, male dominant demographics that enjoy posting entertaining content anonymously. Many name the fall of Digg as the point it really took off. Digg was a curated social site focusing on viral internet issues as well as scientific, political, and tech trends. In 2010 they updated their site in ways the community did not like, dropping traffic dramatically and driving users to Reddit. Since that period, Reddit has owned this space. There's no corporate big wigs controlling the content, minimal ads, and a very functional design. Many "normies" (people who just skim the online surface for pop culture findings) see Reddit's homepage and are turned off immediately, but after a few visits the appeal starts to click. Its core strength is interacting within communities and these features are remarkably easy to navigate on the platform.
The past several years have seen the mainstream hit Reddit with celebrities of all walks of life using it (many publicly). They even had Barack Obama give an AMA (ask me anything) in 2012. On that note, the political rise in meme culture was largely centered around Reddit with subs like r/The_Donald, r/TrumpCriticizesTrump, r/politics, and so on during the 2016 election, and this helped general meme culture to rise as well.
Reddit might not be the place where all original content is created, but it's certainly the place where most of it is curated. The site's meme sub members have grown exponentially the past few years, some into the millions— a few notable ones being r/BlackPeopleTwitter, r/DankMemes, r/MemeEconomy, or r/WholesomeMemes. A positive example of how Reddit's meme culture would be when many subs came together in solidarity with Stefán Karl Stefánsson's fight against cancer. Stefan was famous for his character "Robbie Rotten" in the children's TV show "LazyTown" and was known for being a weird, positive, wholesome influence on a generation. Multiple subs rallied behind him, especially r/dankmemes, which has 1.4 million members who dedicated huge periods of time and energy to the cause and honored him in his tragic passing.
Here is an interesting case study theorizing how Reddit became as popular as it is today.
4chan and the War on Normies
Each one of these sites has their own complex history but 4chan is a unique example since it's regarded by many as one of the deepest online communities. It's widely thought that its heyday was in the early 2000's and that somewhere around 2007 the site began harboring xenophobia and nihilistic attitudes, which it eventually became notorious for. One of its earliest spikes in publicity came from the Anonymous or "Anon" meme of 2003. Anon was a group who would target mass pranks on other online communities, popularizing the term hacktivism.
Much of 4chan's popularity explosion was subsequently due to Reddit becoming mainstream, which was a platform that aggregated content from 4chan. In 2011 Reddit was becoming everything 4chan despised. It was politically correct, over-moderated, and becoming full of normies. Reddit was also largely responsible for the origins of "shitposting," a now common term that describes ranges of trolling, spamming, thread jacking, and so on.
Because Reddit (along with other curating sites like FunnyJunk and 9gag) was largely responsible for bringing 4chan into the public eye by reposting content from it, users fought back by trying to become more offensive. Pepe (the frog) is the best example of this, which began as a generic reaction meme then became mainstream when Katy Perry tweeted it in 2014. This drove Anon to create more offensive Pepe content that ended up leaking onto Reddit and other parts of the web and becoming associated with different hate groups, the alt right, and Donald Trump. The backlash was perpetuated by the 2016 election and successfully distanced 4chan from the mainstream again, but it also created new subcultures of normies on Reddit, Youtube (etc.), full of people who unironically hated others. This was now a time where irony became compounded layers deep, making interpreting certain online cultures near impossible. Phrases like "tbh fam" originated ironically on 4chan in 2015, then became culturally mainstream, then ironically used in mainstream. Talk about postmodernism.
Angela Nagle took a dive into this corner of the internet with her 2017 book Kill All Normies about how much of this movement has risen due to reactionary forces politically between right and left ideologies. It's not fully comprehensive, but it does a fair job summarizing and chronicling the events of this subculture to encourage further research.
Twitter Changed the Meme Game
You can't talk about Twitter without mentioning Weird Twitter, especially on the topic of memes. It refers to a loosely connected mass of Twitter users that create surreal, funny tweets with bad spelling/punctuation and innovative formats. The content ranges from political to absurdist to poetic. Jon Hendren AKA @fart is one of the most early notable accounts associated with Weird Twitter from 2008. Hendren was a writer for Something Awful and started logging his favorite weird tweets in 2011, which partially led to this subculture getting noticed. Some of the most recognizable accounts associated are @wint, @pixelatedboat, @jonnysun, and countless others, many of which that have been banned or deleted over the years.
2012 is when Weird Twitter entered the mainstream. Articles were being written, tweets were being quoted. It was no longer a small isolated community. Twitter itself announced it had 140 million users and was generating 340 million tweets per day. It also acquired Vine, which launched in 2013, allowing users to create and share 6-second looping video clips, adding a huge asset to the company's growth (although it didn't last very long).
Twitter really defined itself as a platform for memes and content creators in 2014. It was this time when it stopped using the service Twitpic and embraced user shared images on the site itself via posts and comments. In later years Facebook followed suit by allowing image/GIF responses, revolutionizing how we communicate online. Now it seems like almost every tweet on a given timeline is an image, GIF, or video.
Some people don't know that Twitter wasn't profitable until 2017. The company struggled for years because it never evolved with the times. It had numerous internal problems, leadership changes, and there were countless scandals of people being threatened or trolled or doxxed because the platform is limitless in its reach. Anyone can tweet something and have it get in front of thousands, if not millions of people. There's no stopping mechanism. This is also Twitter's strength. If you want to stay up-to-date with current events, you have to be on it. The clean layout also makes it easy to screenshot or embed tweets to share on other platforms, which has now made it the most shared platform across all others from Facebook to Reddit to Instagram to Buzzfeed, even to The New York Times.
It's An Absurd World
All this is a streamlined way of demonstrating how memes have become a universal force. They weren’t about just entertaining formats, they were a way to express solidarity and creativity in a way that “the people in charge” couldn’t understand. They became a secret language of sorts. Now that they have evolved into the mainstream, there’s a subculture for everything.
Marketers spend so much time trying to understand younger generations by compartmentalizing them into groups and studies that can’t possibly capture who they really are anymore. You have become seeped in the culture to understand the undercurrents driving general surface behaviors. You have to be part of the conversation. And there’s room in the conversation for everyone. Memes are created, stolen, edited, remade, bought, sold, and everything else. They’re used by teens, adults, media companies, small businesses, vloggers, and everyone in between.
At a glance, some are just silly or absurd, yet a deeper examination reveals that there’s often a message of truth beneath the surface. This is why when marketers present strategy through words like “authentic” they totally miss the mark. Memes are a reaction to fake authenticity, like the hipster movement. They’re the true authenticity because they’re so absurd and ironic that they capture the human experience as we know it today in a way that some polished looking Instagram feed never could. This is also why sometimes The Onion can actually predict the future.
People still want the truth, they still want community, they still want an experience, they still want connection, and they still want entertainment— they just want them at a level our institutions seem incapable of operating at because they refuse to embrace the postmodern culture of irony and absurdity that we’re living in. Due to the meaning that memes create, most ways people in power use them are cheap and exploitative. If you want to use memes, you have to know the world you’re pulling from or else you’ll just wind up on /r/fellowkids(but hey, maybe that’s your goal).
It would take multiple books to deep dive into each period of the development of the internet, social media, viral content, memes, and how culture shifted along the way. This is just a small window written to overview some of the most notable structures. The list of internet phenomena is vast and includes all elements of pop culture that would be impossible to compress into one article. We create 2.5 quintillian bytes of data each day with that pace accelerating each moment due to the Internet of Things.
Explaining all this seems... absurd. But we live in absurd times. There are even now publications that are entirely premised on deep dives into meme culture so... yeah.
Good luck out there ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)