What is a Meme?

The Confusing History of the Internet Meme

What is a Meme?

One Does Not Simply Explain a MemeWhat is a meme and where does a meme come from?

Ask any person what a meme is and they will most likely either stumble through the question or struggle to articulate its exact meaning. After reading this article, have some great fun with friends. Pose the question “What is a meme?” and watch how a debate erupts as they parse the specifics.

So what is a meme?

In the fewest words, It’s a device for transporting an idea through culture.

Do you have an inside joke with a friend or lover? That is a meme.

Have you ever played punch-buggy?

It’s when you see a Volkswagen Beetle on the road and then you get to punch the person you are with on their arm for identifying that car first.

That is a meme.

Most see a meme as a commentary using various mediums. You can use still images, video, sound, text and of course combine them all. Combinations of text over static images are popular in many social networks in the present time. Messages are often abstract, even confusing while others are specific.

Creative MemesAnother quality of a meme is that it’s shared, or meant to be shared with everyone. It can be a shared expression, value or thought. A meme can be an elusive concept or a serious message. Most often meme’s are funny social commentaries. A meme can motivate a person or entity to action or preserve a message or meaning.

How does a Meme Work?

There is a creator and a replicator. Memes chaotically evolve from the intended message to a new meaning making them an uncontrolled entity once it leaves the creator’s hands. Memes can be intended or spawn organically.

The Meme History

Richard Dawkins book The Selfish GeneThe word itself is a hip version of an ancient Greek word, mimeme, imitated thing. Science author Richard Dawkins is credited with the meme’s origin. He sums up a meme as a unit of cultural transmission making just about anything you can think of a meme. It can be a phrase, an image, a sound a fashion or object of any sort.

Richard Dawkins book The Selfish Gene was written in 1976 well before the Internet as we know it existed. Yet it is the Internet that has made the meme an accepted part of today’s culture. In the early days of the Internet, the first Internet meme of the Dancing Baby was a completely unintended phenomenon.

Classic Memes

Wow, can anyone really say they know which memes are the best of all time? Sure I can. Here are a few. Some are immortalized on video through YouTube, others are images or text:

Dancing Baby (1996)

Perhaps the First. In 1996, 3D rendered baby animation is passed through forums. In the time it’s used in mainstream media.

The Hamster Dance (1997/98)

A simple musical animation of hamsters dancing accompanied by a whimsical bluegrass yodeler (Whistle Stop by Roger Miller). Deidre LaCarte is credited for creating it to win a web traffic contest paying tribute to her hamster. It was often passed around through email and lives on to this day on Youtube.com.

I Kiss You! (1999)

Mahir Cagri of Izmir, Turkey, became an instant Internet celebrity promoting himself on a shared hosting site where he requested the company of women. He bypassed creepy with an endearing cheesy monologue. His claim to fame? Variations of dialogue, “I kiss you!” and “I kiss you back!”

Make no mistake, Mahir’s goal was sex, inviting women to come to Turkey and stay in his home. Yet his awkward cheesy style spawned the catchphrase, “I kiss you!” It’s widely speculated that the character Borat in his broken English is based on Mahir. Facts prove this to be untrue as Sacha Baron Cohen’s prototype character auditioned and aired prior to Mahir’s splash in 1999.

Star Wars Kid (2003)

A true accidental classic. Boy records himself, friends find a recording and put it on the Internet.

The Honey Badger (2011)

Yet another audiovisual meant for the medium of YouTube… It’s the narration of Randall speaking colloquially complete with expletives.


Cats (Always)

Yes, in a word cats. You can’t place a specific time this began but at this point in time, one of the longest ongoing meme’s are cats. From iconic cats such as Grumpy Cat whom tweets and spawns viral videos at noxious speed, to videos of cats in action by every random cat owner on the planet.

Cat MemesCat memes are perhaps the most widely recognizable meme today. One definable aspect of early memes was the use of the Impact font which generally had a black ‘stroke’ around it.

Fail (Always)

Also known as Epic Fail, this meme phenomenon also lives on to this day. Think of it as America’s Funniest Home Videos (US TV show featuring blooper style videos of home movies) without the ear-gouging bad jokes offered up by host Tom Bergeron.

An Early Meme - Dewey Defeats TrumanFail memes are often videos or still photos of captured moments in time where something takes place that you can’t take your eyes off despite off-the-chart failure in execution.

The Impact of Memes

President Obama Taking the Ice Bucket ChallengeMemes have become more than commentary and satire. Thanks to the Internet, memes are all powerful. A local meme will become International. What would have been lost in oblivion can create societal change. Need proof? Think of the Ice Bucket Challenge. It raised awareness globally to raise money for a noble cause. No one was untouched as videos poured in from around the world from the poorest of the poor to Presidents.

Scores of memes have come and gone. Some have long term impact. Most fade from memory once out of the public eye. Without the imagery to jog your memory can you remember these memes? Bonus points if you can name each year!!!
Visual Memes With No Text

  • Distracted Boyfriend (At Right)
  • Slender Man
  • Dramatic Prairie Dog
  • The Evolution of Dance
  • Derp
  • I Regret Nothing
  • U Mad Bro
  • Photobomb Squirrel (At Right)
  • Loss <—great article!
  • Chuck Norris Facts
  • Keyboard Cat
  • Banhammer
  • Crazy Frog
  • Salt Bae (At Right)
  • Yolo
  • Ask a Ninja
  • Fry Squinty Eye
  • Pants on the Ground
  • Gungnam Style
  • Pepe the Frog
  • Trololo
  • The Dress
  • Condescending Wonka
  • Leeroooooy Jenkins!
  • Double Rainbow
  • Ima Let You Finish
  • Success Kid (At Right)
  • After the Dentist
  • Don’t taz me bro!
  • Charlie Bit Me
  • Obama Girl
  • More Cowbell
  • Rebecca Black – Friday
  • Stay Calm
  • LOL Cats
  • Rick Roll
  • Chocolate Rain
  • Winning!
  • Hitler Reacts


The Future of Meme

Memes will come and go, but you now have a better understanding of the elusive meme term.

Grumpy Cat Movie MemeThe evolution of meme is lightning fast. Meta. The moment a meme hits the Internet someone plays off of it to create a yet new meme. Basing memes off of memes is meta for sure but what happens when a meme becomes a movie? Think Tardar Sauce. What is Tarder Sauce? Think who is Tarder Sauce, a.k.a. Grumpy Cat. Born in 2012, Tardar Sauce became such an Internet celebrity due to her underbite and dwarf size. After TV appearances in 2013 on networks such as ABC, CBS, Fox, E!, and VH1, she soon got a book. In 2014 Grumpy Cat scored a TV commercial followed by appearances on The Bachelorette and WWE Monday Night Raw. Finally in late 2014 came the made for TV film, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever.

Memes are sure to produce more Grumpy Cat success stories, maybe the next one will involve you.

Assorted MemesOne more thing. Don’t post any memes on the DangerMan Facebook wall. We hate them. Now wouldn’t that be something? We create a worldwide phenomenon of people slamming the DangerMan wall with memes just to frustrate us…