What is a Meme?
Everything you ever need to know about Memes - What is a meme? A complete guide from GIFs to Lolcatz.
What is a meme? Its a question I hear time and time again from people over the age of thirty but there is no embarrassment in that. If you have ever spent more than five minutes on the world wide web I can pretty much guarantee that you have encountered a meme you just don’t know it yet.
Firstly let’s deal with the pronunciation of the word meme.
It is not me-me
It is not meh-meh
It is pronounced meem (rhymes with team)
There you go. No longer will your seven-year-old nephew laugh in your face when you pronounce it wrong. Not even fifty words in and you’ve learned something!
Now you know how to pronounce it, what in the name of all that is evil is it?
What is a meme?
In a nutshell, a meme is a piece of content that is passed naturally from person to person. In their very nature memes are viral.
More often than not a meme is a captioned image with big bold white text at the top and at the bottom. They are instantly recognisable and I’m sure you have seen more than your fair share. There is a technical term for this form of meme however and it is Image Macros and they follow this simplistic format:
- Text. Usually Bold Impact font, white in colour and sometimes on a black background. The text is usually centralised and referred to as Top and Bottom Text.
- The background image. This would either be made of an already existing image which is known for meme use or another image which is culturally relevant.
Some classic examples of well know image memes would be:
However, memes can be video, GIF (more on that later) or any other piece of content you can muster up.
As you can see a meme is much more than just images and video. The true definition of the word meme according to the Oxford English Dictionary is:
- An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.
- An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.
The term “meme” has more to do with the passing of culturally relevant and humorous materials than images with text. That information is then developed and evolves into different forms of content. In short, memes are like most things on the internet, they are copied, changed and parodied by users.
Where did the name “meme” come from?
Believe it or not, it is a phrase coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The word is a shortening of mimeme (from Ancient Greek μίμημα pronounced [míːmɛːma] mīmēma, which means “to imitate.”
The word was used to describe the passing of an idea, style or behaviour from person to person but was hijacked by the internet to describe the sharing of content. That's right the Richard Dawkins phrase was rehashed to describe grumpy cats and overly attached girlfriends.
What was the world’s first meme?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what was the world’s first meme was but we can whittle it down to a couple “The Dancing Baby” and “The Hamster Dance.”
The Dancing Baby
“The Dancing Baby” was first made in 1996 by Robert Lurye and Michael Girard using the “Biped” animation system of Character Studio. It spread through emails quickly but it wasn’t until it was featured in an episode of Ally McBeal entitled “Cro-Magnon” in 1998 that it really took off.
“The Dancing Baby” was one of the first viral videos and was pretty much everywhere in the late 1990’s. The meme appeared in a Blockbuster Video commercial, EA Sports FIFA 99, an Alpha build of Half-Life and the Gorillas in Zoo Tycoon will sometimes burst out the same dance moves as “The Dancing Baby.”
The Hamster Dance
“The Hamster Dance” was one of the first ever meme’s and appeared on a single serving site, a website comprising of only one page and served only one purpose. “The Hamster Dance” was a GIF-based meme which comprised of four lines of hamsters dancing to a sped up version of “Whistle Stop” by Roger Miller.
It was originally conceived by Deidre LaCarte as a result of a bet between her best friend and her sister to see who could make a website that would get the most internet traffic. This meme was spread through emails, blog posts and most commonly through bait and switch pranks. (Ever been Rick Rolled?) A bait and switch prank was a lovely little misleading link that would take you to “The Hamster Dance” instead of what you really thought it was about. Bait and switch have evolved over the years and has had many different forms.
What is a GIF?
A GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) in a nutshell is an image format. It can stand toe to toe with JPEG, PNG and TIFF bit a GIF has one difference which makes it stand out to the other. You can store more than one image in a GIF File, therefore, you can use it to animate.
Technically speaking that sort of file is called a GIF 87a.
It was originally used in early web development as a way to animate basic images and used in advertising but as with all things on the internet, it didn’t take long for users to repackage, turn it into a verb it into their own form of content.
Now there is quite literally a GIF for everything. For a long time, GIF’s were confined to places like Reddit and Tumblr but their popularity has grown to such an extent that Facebook had to rejig their system to allow the user to start embedding GIF’s into their posts and feeds.
Who uses Memes?
Nowadays everyone uses memes from your Nan to major brands as a way of trying to gain your business. In the early days on the internet, the most common examples of meme’s could be found in the depths of forums and eventually in places like 4chan. They were quickly adopted by millennials but have since bled into pretty much every generation of internet user even though sometimes they don’t realise they are succumbing to the infinite power of the meme.
Any notable examples of memes?
Do you really think we would go to all this effort of writing this informative piece without digging out some of the best memes in existence?
We wouldn’t do that to you.
The Rick Roll
We spoke about this one earlier but for anyone who isn’t aware of this meme, firstly where have you been? And secondly, it is tremendous.
It is a simple concept but the 1987 Rick Astley song “Never Gonna Give You Up” had a revival 20 years later in 2007 when internet users started the Rick Roll. Basically, you would get sent a link to something that looked appealing or shocking, commonly known as “clickbait” but instead of taking you to your intended destination you end up here.
This meme phenomenon eventually led to moments like this:
For some reason, the internet is big on cats doing cat things but it is especially enamoured by cats doing human things.
Images with cats using a native language known as “lolspeak.” the Lolcats became so big that it inspired the long extinct blog I Haz Cheezburger. At the height of its popularity, the blog was getting 1.5 million hits a day.
Star Wars Kid
In 2003 a video was released on a 15-year-old boy doing some pretty nifty moves with a homemade double-bladed lightsaber. It was shot on VHS (long before camera phones) and spread like wildfire through emails, blogs and forums. This was long before Facebook, Twitter or even Myspace. Needless to say, the video changed and was parodied countless time.
There is a dark side to this tale. The young person who was in the video was 15-year-old Quebec schoolboy Ghyslain Raza and he never intended the video to make its way onto the internet. Raza received tirades of abuse both online and at school. He was told to commit suicide by internet trolls.
“What I saw was mean. It was violent. People were telling me to commit suicide,” he told journalist Jonathan Trudel.
“No matter how hard I tried to ignore people telling me to commit suicide, I couldn’t help but feel worthless, like my life wasn’t worth living.” Raza has said that fellow students would “climb on to tabletops” just to hurl insults at him.
It got so bad that he has to quit formal education and start going to private tutors. It’s hard to count exactly how many times the video has been viewed but NBC reckons it’s well over a billion.
The footage was released without Raza’s permission after some of his schoolmates came across it.
Raza’s parent’s filed a $160,000 lawsuit against the parent of the pupils who leaked this footage stating that it caused their son tremendous and unnecessary damage and stress. According to Mashable the Raza family settled outside of court but it wasn’t even enough to cover their legal fees.
The story does have a happy ending though. Raza went on to graduate from senior year at high school and graduated from Law School.
In 2013 he used his experiences to speak out and advocate again cyberbullying telling people who are experiencing some of the same trauma he underwent “You’ll survive. You’ll get through it… you’re not alone. You are surrounded by people who love you.”
How Can I Make A Meme?
Em…of course you can. The more the merrier. You don’t need to be a Photoshop whizz to make meme’s in this day in age, in fact, you can either use online platforms such IMGFLIP to make memes of you can use apps like Ultimate Meme Generator to make memes on the move.
All you need now is a sense of humour, a good idea and more than one Facebook friend.
How Can I Make a GIF?
Back in days of yore GIF’s were incredibly difficult to make if you had to digital design skills but thankfully we have long surpassed those early days. Now you can use sites like Giphy to make GIF’s in a matter of seconds.