There are few aspects of modern culture as maligned or misunderstood as memes. Despite their long, varied, and culturally significant history — which spans over a decade at this point — memes are still shrouded in a kind of mystery. Where did they come from? What are they? And dear God, where are they going?
The first usage of the term meme originates in an unlikely source: Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book, The Selfish Gene; Dawkins thought of memes as a sort of intellectual or cultural equivalent of a gene, that is, a thought which spreads from person to person. Dawkins’ theory, which proposed that memes were units of information that existed independent of humans, was met with scientific skepticism, and has fallen to the status of pseudoscience in the present day.
Despite its humble beginnings, the term took on a new and vibrant life in the internet age. The word “meme” was first used in a modern sense circa 1995 on Usenet, an early forum and a veritable font of internet culture. Of course, like so many cultural categories, the word “meme” resists definition. In the mid-90s the term was used to describe images, concepts, or phrases that spread broadly and were often imitated.
However, this description is somewhat broad. If we take this definition at face value, memes are practically ancient. Folk songs often spread like memes, with singers changing and innovating on a viral tune. Kilroy, a cartoon character soldiers drew during World War II, was a meme for the analogue age.
However, it seems that memes have an added level of postmodernist self-awareness. That is to say, a viral video, image, or catchphrase becomes a meme mostly by its self-identification as a meme, or by situating itself in the meme landscape.
Despite their eclectic and ironic sensibility, the earliest memes seem charmingly quaint to a modern internet user. It is a testament to the fast-moving nature of memes that fads like Chocolate Rain, LOLCats, and the Tron Guy, which are all less than a decade old, now seem antique. It might be hard to remember, but these images and videos dominated the scene from 2000-2012. This was the Wild West period of memes, where the future of these silly images and videos was uncertain and they went undiscovered by much of the internet-using populace.
Memes were somewhat fewer back then, and the ones that reached popularity showed incredible levels of longevity. For instance, Rickrolling, which involves directing an unsuspecting victim to Rick Astley’s 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up,” is nearly a decade old, and still has relevance today.
Those poor mid-2000s people could have never predicted the meteoric rise of memes that has occurred since 2012. Since then, we have seen a renaissance of meme culture, due mostly to their wide reach. In their early days, memes were popular among a select few in-the-know internet nerds on forums like 4chan. Today, they have become the de facto medium for youth expression around the world. The formal characteristics of memes have been appropriated by nearly every culture on the face of the planet. China, Mexico, France, and Turkey all have been the source of numerous memes.
A particularly important example of this phenomenon is the development and use of memes by African Americans. Black Twitter, a predominantly Black community of Twitter users, has become a major cultural force, not least of all because of its prolific and innovative creation and adaption of memes. Black Americans have been creating memes practically as long as the concept of a meme has existed, and they have been employing these memes, which usually consist of a captioned image, in both celebrations of African American culture, and the struggle against racism in America.
In recent years, Black Twitter has joined (and in some cases supplanted) 4chan, Reddit, and other traditionally white forums as a crucial online community. They have mobilized their members both in serious political campaign, and the general silliness characteristic of memes.
However, memes have a more sinister side as well. Due to their open and accessible nature, they have been appropriated by white supremacists and far-right activists in recent years. Indeed, in the 2016 presidential election, memes played a more significant role in Donald Trump’s sudden rise to popularity and the subsequent genesis of the so called “alt-right” than any conventional media.
Pepe the frog, a meme which began as a simple cartoon frog on the 4chan imageboard, quickly became a dog whistle for various ultra conservative and white nationalist elements. Some widely spread memes depict Pepe in an SS uniform or standing outside of the Auschwitz concentration camp. If Pepe is a dog whistle, however, the quick spread of the term “cuck” is a megaphone. Short for cuckold, that is, a man being cheated on by his wife, “cuck” is a derogatory term leveled at antifascists and opponents of white nationalism, implying that such people are being cuckolded by the forces of social equality and multiculturalism. In a similar vein, neo-Nazis often put three sets of parentheses — (((like this))) — around the names of Jewish individuals in order to aid anti-Semitic social media campaigns, an effort which has proved hilariously ineffective.
It appears that this new coalition of fascists, anti-Semites, and white nationalists have eschewed their predecessors’ means of spreading their ideology, pamphlets or tomes like Mein Kampf, in favor of viral media. Although, to this writer, it appears that fascists have not gotten any funnier in the intervening 80 years.
Judging by the amount of new memes from people of every religion and nationality, it seems unlikely that this far-right shift is anything more than a brief interlude in the history of memes. If anything, the present shift in meme culture trends towards diversity. Think what you will of memes, but in such a fractured political climate, it is reassuring to see such a move.