History

Why Memes Should Never Be Forgotten

A real meme librarian shows us how much memes have evolved over time, and how they are changing the way we communicate.

What exactly is a meme? You probably know the internet-age definition of a meme, or at least you can picture one in your mind, but where did the term originally come from?

Memes were originally defined as content that travels from one person to another, usually changing along the way based upon each person's individual influence. The term was first coined by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, in 1976, based on the fact that memes travel by way of replication, similar to the way genes are transmitted.

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Before the internet, memes were used to describe a wide range of cultural transmissions like songs, catch phrases or slang, and fashion trends. The number of mediums that could produce a meme were much greater. One of the first memes ever recorded was a piece of graffiti popularized during WWII that read "Kilroy was here." It was a way to show new soldiers that came through a combat zone that their side had been there.

WWII Kilroy meme | Wikipedia: Luis Rubio from Alexandria, VA, USA

With the birth of the internet came an entirely new place for memes to live. While all internet memes have the shared trait of existing online, they also take on many different forms. An internet meme can be a photo, a photo with text, a hashtag, a YouTube or Vine video, or a Tweet.

Bat Dad Viral Vine Meme, 2013 Meme formats have also progressed over the years as different technologies and platforms have developed. In the early 2000s flash animation was one of the most common meme formats. In 2005, with the birth of YouTube, video memes were popularized. 2009 was the year that stereotype memes became trendy, like "First world problems." 2013 brought the "Doge" meme and gave dogs their very own language.

Doge meme | Wikipedia

While memes are silly and serve to make us laugh, they're also very culturally significant. They can teach us a lot about communication. Anyone can alter a meme to make it more relatable to their own community -- like a certain profession, age group, or racial background, which offers a lot of insight into how different communities relate to one another.