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Origin of the Meme

I saw it the day before Daylight Savings Time ended. It is one of my favorites. I'm sure you’ve seen it – the one with a picture of Cher and the banner “If I could turn back time … well you can one hour this Sunday at 2am. Cher with a friend”.

Word Meme written in wooden blocks in red notebook on white wood

If you use any social media, or are just a consumer of Internet content, you know that Memes – like cats – are everywhere online. What you may not be aware of is just what they are, where they come from, and what they represent.

According to Wikipedia - A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme.

The phase was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. According to Dawkins, a Meme – pronounced Meem (to rhyme with gene) - refers to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. Much like genes, he hypothesized that cultural entities can be “passed” from person to person in the form of music, oral history or fashions of the time as examples.

Memes reproduce through human contact and have the ability to evolve because humans do not pass Memes perfectly. As a result, Memes have the ability to be refined, combine or otherwise modify with other Memes to create new Memes that can change over time. And while the phenomenon in no way originated with the Internet – the term “going viral” is certainly appropriate to explain the proliferation of the Meme.

KILROY WAS HERE graffiti on plane at The Palm Springs Air Museum, California

One of the earliest examples of a “viral” Meme was the use of the tag “Kilroy Was Here” along with a crude drawing of a man looking over a fence, usually sporting a very large nose. This Meme dates back to WWII. In the early 1940’s it was popular graffiti used by American troops to symbolize national solidarity – and possibly to sow confusion among enemy troops.

Hang in there baby

My first conscious encounter with a Meme was the ubiquitous “Hang in There Baby” tag line– with the adorable kitten hanging from a branch – that was on every poster, button, postcard and hippy backpack in the 1970’s. You’ve probably seen some form of this Meme – maybe using a different animal or slightly modified tag line – but there is no mistaking the cultural phenomena it represented.

A more recent example could be of the ill timed invitation from Bill Cosby asking fans to create Memes using his Jello Pudding photo shots – right about the time there was some other less fortunate news breaking about him. Sometimes things go viral for the all the wrong reasons.

There are even apps ( Meme Generator for Android or iOS ) and websites ( Meme Generator) that help you generate your own Meme. Use an image from a movie or TV show, a photo of a famous celebrity, or use your own image to create a unique Meme to take the Internet by storm.

Any popular cultural topic can be relevant; from politics to celebrities, from the weather to sports, no subject is exempt from Meme treatment. Memes are generally humorous, although sometimes the message they convey can be poignant or even sad.

So the next time you are enjoying a good Meme while taking a break from all those great viral cat videos, stop and think about it’s long history and social significance – or don’t and just enjoy the diversion a Meme creates! Better yet, think about creating some great Meme worthy photos to sell!

Photo credits: Gwyn Goodrow, Karen Foley, Oksana Ryzhinskaya.

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