The History of the Meme

History of the Meme

The use of various types of images has rapidly increased since the inception of the Web – with literally trillions of image views now occurring annually. One common form of online image is the meme – which isn’t just a picture with text but a concept popularized by Richard Dawkins.

  • The Rapid Rise of the Image
  • Origin of Meme as a Word & Concept
  • Meme Created through Analysis of Selfishness
  • The Genetics of Culture
  • The Meme the Seme
  • The Internet Meme is Born

The Rapid Rise of the Image

Image is huge online, as indicated by the greater engagement that companies typically see when they integrate visuals into their content. Of course the two standard traditional forms are photo and video. The Internet also saw the rise of short, repeating video clips (one example of a GIF) and photos with text (one example of a meme).

The general obsession with image, and the interplay with images and video that occurs with the latter two formats, means that companies focused on image searching, manipulation, and sharing have become big business.

Take Imgur, an image-sharing community founded in 2009. For five years, the company struggled to grow with little financing, reports Fast Company. In 2014, the leadership started seeking investors, landing $40 million from famed Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, along with less substantial funding from Reddit. Last year, the company’s workforce grew 100% to 65 people. Here’s the really shocking number: Imgur fulfilled nearly 1 trillion image loads in 2015 alone – 900 billion images served.

Related: Part of the reason image-sharing has increased so tremendously is that serving images has become significantly faster and more efficient via cloud computing. At Superb Internet, we help our customers serve their clients more reliably through distributed rather than centralized storage and InfiniBand rather than 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

Origin of Meme as a Word & Concept

Image is huge, and one prime example of that is the standard, image-and-text meme. Surely you have seen many memes online, but you may not know how the idea of a meme came into being.

The person responsible is actually evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, notes Annalee Newitz of io9. “That’s right,” she says. “Dawkins is indirectly responsible for every fruit-adorned cat, weird Japanese mashup video, and animated gif from Harry Potter fandom that has spurted out of the internet and into your face.”

Meme Created through Analysis of Selfishness

In 1976, Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene was published. The book looked at evolution in terms of genes and suggested that we are all driven by our self-serving genes for our own preservation. Essentially Dawkins took Darwin’s framework for how a species survives and applied it to the selfish motivations of each person – as contained within their genes.

Dawkins also took into account culture, acknowledging that we are influenced heavily by our environments. He was right to realize the power of one’s environment: a recent big-data study that incorporated the information from 14.5 million pairs of twins found that nature and nurture each have about 50% of the influence over health, intellect, and personality.

Dawkins focused on culture by introducing the meme, which essentially meant a cultural concept passed between people – something that includes both the memes of the Internet and even world religions.Like a gene, a meme wants to spread and evolve, but it does so at a much faster rate than genes,” says Newitz. “An idea can mutate an entire culture in less than a generation.”

Now, you may think that a cat GIF doesn’t have anything to do with survival, and that’s true. Memes are replicated from one mind to the next, often reaching millions of people, in a process that can last for millennia. Memes are fulfilling our emotional desires or psychological needs, basically. Similarly to genes, memes are in competition – for our focus.

The meme and the gene have vast differences since one is conceptual and one is organically encoded information, but both genes and memes exist essentially for replication: both compete to survive, in part by attaching themselves to other memes. Just think about the concept of competing social content and hashtagging or at-mentioning, and this basic construct makes sense.

The Meme vs. the Seme

Dawkins’ notion for the meme is actually derived from Roland Barthes’ concept of the seme, which was an individual unit of semantic meaning. Similarly to the meme, the seme could be an image, a term, or a song.

If the meme is the basic unit of culture, I suppose you could say the seme is the basic unit of cultural ambiguity.” says Newitz. Both semes and memes “mean many things at once, or their meanings change over time.”

The Internet Meme is Born

How did the meme make its way into the online world? Donald Rushkoff introduced the notion of a “media virus” in 1996 – basically his way of describing memes that are onine. After Media Virus was published, people started to talk about virality as something that occurs to Internet memes.

It wasn’t until the rise of social media that meme started to become a household term and one of the chief components of online activity.

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