The history of Internet memes is as old as the Internet itself. In fact, you could say that one of the major wonders of the Web is how it has scratched our human itch to share pointless twaddle with everyone we know. (As a disclaimer, I should point out that I mean, in no way, to ignore the Web as a revolutionizing and often positive force in our lives. I simply want to illuminate how it has also handed us a way to indulge our obsession with offbeat cultural phenomena.) To put it bluntly, we have never seen a cat in a onesie that we didn’t feel compelled to broadcast far and wide.
Do you remember the dancing baby from Ally McBeal? Or the video of those guys dancing a choreographed number while on treadmills?
These snippets from popular culture, and countless other examples, passed quickly through college campuses and corporate offices because the Internet enabled such an efficient proliferation of information. These days, anyone with access to an email address, Facebook page, or social news website can alert her community to the latest “OMG moment” within seconds.
In the past, we’ve called these viral sensations “trends” or “fads.” Yet, in recent months, I’ve noticed how we’ve begun to use the word “meme” to describe patterns on the Internet. The word “meme” has become a meme in and of itself.
Just during the short tenure of the Obama administration, we’ve seen the Socialist meme and the Aretha’s hat meme. Lest you think the meme meme has been restricted to politics, just look at the Skittles meme, which found some traction in the Twitterverse.
In the 1970s, when laypeople were still twenty years away from beholding a conceptual understanding of the Internet, Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, coined the word “meme” to describe how units of culture self-replicate much like genes. Memes, he reasoned, were subject to selective pressures in the environment that could determine the meme’s ultimate survival. In Web terms, this amounts to how an idea can move from isolated incident to viral sensation in the blink of an eye.
In similar fashion, but in the opposite direction, the “meme of the meme” could simply ebb over time until we have found yet another new word to describe popular themes on the Internet. Until that time, however, it seems worthwhile to track the proliferation of “meme” as a potent example of viral media. While we can’t know exactly why “meme” has rather suddenly found a home in our lexicon, we can trace its winding path through the online sphere, at least until it goes the way of the Hampster Dance.