Gather ’round yon Millennials and Gen Z’s, it’s Meme time! Gen Xers and up? Here’s what a “meme” (me-em) is.
According to the Oxford dictionary, a meme is “an image, a video, a piece of text, etc. that is passed very quickly from one Internet user to another, often with slight changes that make it humorous.”
Memes of Old
The first meme was before the internet, in fact it’s older than probably anyone reading this article, because the first meme came about in World War I (101 years ago).
Foo Was Here. During WWI, Australian forces drew a small doodle on a train car in every AIF (Australian Imperial Force) camp. This recurring, silly drawing counts as the first meme.
Then in WWII, American forces created their own version of Foo Was Here, but his name was Kilroy. This became a much more popular version, and was subsequently used in other American wars since.
Jump to early 2000s, .gifs started to become popular, but the term “meme” still wouldn’t become popular until right before 2010. I remember the first Gif (#JIF) I ever saw was of one penguin slapping another into the water. I saw it everywhere, and since then gifs have been one of the strongest threads in the meme tapestry.
Around 2006, came on of the first, if not the greatest, internet prank in history, “Rickrolling.” The idea of sending someone a link, telling them it’s one thing, but it actually being something different. There’s an article on Vulture that goes into why the internet collectively chose Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a song that was 20 years old by the time of the prank, as opposed to other, more contemporary songs. The prank became so popular that on April Fools Day 2008, YouTube made every single video that you clicked on, instead go to this song.
2007, we see the popularity of “Macro Memes” appear, where someone superimposes text onto an image. Macro Memes quickly gain their own language, as specific pictures are used as a shortcut to the kind of meme it is. For instance, the Philosoraptor below took a look at things that didn’t make sense, or rhetorical questions. These became so widespread, that if you google “meme” it pulls up mostly Macro Memes.
During this time as well, “Rage Comics” were popularized. These were poorly drawn comics, but with faces representing different characters. In much the same way that Commedia Del’Arte used masks to help create the language of comedy itself, rage comics used repeating faces to help create the language of internet comedy.
Let’s talk about those Modern Memes! These are memes that you will see in circulation on the internet today. The first three show a decline in traditional humor, and won’t make any sense if you are jumping on the bandwagon late. Unless of course you are younger, in which case you are able to understand the joke, because kids these days make no darn sense.
Dank Memes are memes that on their own don’t make any sense. It is only if your sense of humor has devolved with the internet’s, that you would find these funny. While everyone can explain the idea behind the Philosoraptor, no one can explain properly why these below image of Spongebob is humorous. While the phrase “Dank” usually means good, here it is used ironically, as the meme is not good on it’s own, only through a thick lens of irony.
Now the ball is rolling on these jokes that doesn’t make sense without the artificial context that internet culture provides. Just like an addict, the internet needed the next level, and now we introduce “Deconstructionist Memes.” Usually based on other Dank Memes, we see people pull apart the memes from themselves, because again, the joke isn’t based on any actual context, so there is nowhere else to remove it from, but internally.
This is where you really need to hold onto something, as we open up the Pandora’s Box of “Postmodern Memes.” Below we have a picture, that requires a lot to explain.
- Picture of Mark Zuckerberg from his Congressional Meetings
- The head of Lord Farquaad from Shrek
- The face of popular YouTuber Markiplier
- The image has been “deep-fried,” or put through a series of filters to give it that grainy look with an orange tint
- The letter “E” has been superimposed on top, not unlike a Macro Meme, but just the letter “E.”
All of those together comprise this demonspawn of an image. It makes absolutely no sense, cannot be relatable in any conceivable way, and is entirely purposeless. And yet…
That was a lot to take in, so let’s go back to something easy, shall we? On Twitter, whenever you post text with an image, the image is always placed on bottom. So a popular meme format is just from Tweets, with accompanying images. Many times, these memes are very relatable, and easy to understand.
Alright, back into the harder stuff. Just like how Deconstructionist Memes require the context of other memes, so too do “Multi-Tier Memes.” Let’s take a look at my favorite Multi-Tier Meme, but first, the context of other, previously individual memes.
Justin Timberlake, when in the band *NSYNC, performed a song called “It’s Gonna Be Me,” but because of the intonation in his voice, he sounds instead like he is saying “It’s gonna be May.”
Justin Timberlake, also during his *NSYNC years, curled and dyed his hair in a way that resembles dry ramen noodles.
Now, knowing these two separate memes, when you see dry ramen noodles, you should think of Justin Timberlake during his *NSYNC years, where he meme-famously says “It’s gonna be May.”
Multi-Tier Memes Baby!
The next step in Multi-Tier Memes is the “Crossover Meme,” wherein you take two memes or moments, from very different sources, and put them together. Let’s take a look at a Crossover Meme for Spongebob and Endgame. First, a moment from Spongebob:
Then the resulting meme:
Now a completely unrelated moment from Avengers: Endgame:
Now we will take the context from the Endgame moment, and slap it no the Spongebob meme to create a Crossover Meme.
I’m going to be honest, I can only think of one meme that falls under the “Revived Memes” description, but it is just too good to ignore in a post called The History of Memes. In 2013, popular Twitter comedian Tweeted a joke referencing the fictional “Skeleton War.”
Since then, every October, the internet prepares for Halloween, the annual date of the ongoing Skeleton War. These memes are usually only seen during one month, but every year for the past six years. Somehow the 11 months in between are not enough to let the meme die. And even if it does, it will just revive, like the soldiers of the Skeleton War themselves.
cw: use of mental disorder as an insult.
Occasionally memes break free of the internet, and are talked about on the News.
The Meme Ban of the European Union. Back in February of this year, the EU Parliament passed a law requiring all uploads to the internet to be scanned for copyright infringement. A law passed with good intentions, to protect content creators from plagiarism.
Of course as you’ve surely noticed from above, almost every single meme uses images from popular movies, tv shows, music videos, etc. Thus, memes died in the EU.
So of course, memes became creative.
Back in 2016, a small child at the Cincinnati Zoo made his way into the gorilla enclosure for a gorilla named Harambe. As Harambe began to attack and physically harm the child, a zoo employee believed the only way to save the boys life would be to shoot and kill the gorilla. While on the news and with zoologists this was the right decision, the internet was up in arms, claiming that if the child fell in, perhaps he deserved his fate, and that Harambe was innocent and deserved to live. This was largely ironic, but caught on like wildfire. Ever since then, whenever anything bizarre happens in the world, the internet claims that it is because people are still upset over the death of Harambe.
Harambe has joined a pantheon of god-like characters within meme culture, which also includes Bob Ross, Steve Irwin, Stefan Karl Stefansson of Lazy Town, and many others.
This is something we are still very much in the middle of. Originating as a Facebook event called “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us.” Set for September 20, over 2 million people signed up before Facebook took down the event. Of course, that’s after it was featured on Stephen Colbert’s and Jimmy Kimmel’s respective late night shows. The creator of the event, Mathew Roberts, isn’t truly expecting people to attempt to break into the base, especially after the Air Force released a statement, essentially saying they have no problem gunning down everyone to protect their secrets. Roberts is instead planning a festival to happen that day nearby, and honestly expects 20,000 people to show up. We will have to wait and see. Why is this in a post about memes? Because that’s why the event became so popular, were memes. If you want to create something popular, making it memeworthy will help far more than a Superbowl commercial.
It’s also worth mentioning that this specific meme uses the language of memes, that make no sense outside of context, with terms such as “Kyles,” “Karens,” “Naruto Runners,” and more.
Essentially there are so many memes that have evolved over the years, that while it’s not too late to join in on the fun, it might be a little difficult at first. Once you get into it though, memes are a ton of fun, ranging from wholesome to NSFW, from politics to Spongebob, and from referential to relatable.