Memes: origin and evolution

Did you know that the term meme was coined as early as 1976?

Communication Team


Reading time: 4 min

Richard Dawkins: creator of the term meme and memetics

The biologist, zoologist and science popularizer Richard Dawkins (Nairobi, 1941) introduced in his 1976 essay on evolutionary biology “The selfish gene” the concepts of meme and memetics.

The term meme was coined, analogous to gene, to describe the way in which Charles Darwin’s principles could be extended to explain the spread of ideas and phenomena, i.e., memetics.

The author argued that the meme is a unit of information resident in the brain and the mutant replicator in human cultural evolution, a pattern capable of influencing its surroundings and spreading. 

Thus, it could be summarized that for Dawkins memes are the cultural equivalent, their basic unit, to what genes are to biology.

It should be noted that, although we are dealing with two analogous phenomena, the propagation of memetic phenomena is much faster than that of genetic phenomena. This is because genes are transmitted by reproduction while memes are transmitted by imitation.

Internet memes, a phenomenon of the early 21st century

The evolution of memes on the Internet is undoubtedly linked to the evolution of the Internet itself, a technological phenomenon that has completely changed our lives in recent decades.

If we stick to the RAE’s second meaning of meme that we saw at the beginning of this article and to what the vast majority of the population understands by this term, we would be dealing with content disseminated via the Internet for comic purposes and with wide dissemination.

“When we talk about memes on the Internet, we have to make a slightly more precise definition, and then we refer to cultural units that are replicated on the Internet, whether through social networks or any other virtual environment”.

This is how Gabriel Pérez Salazar explains in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada how the meme has transcended its original meaning to become a phenomenon of the current era.

The same publication explains that in 1996 there was already an animated gif that could be considered one of the first memes that reached worldwide repercussions: “A dancing baby, called ‘Ooga-Chaka Baby’, after the music that later appeared in the series Ally McBeal”.

Pérez Salazar himself places the emergence of the Internet meme as an identifiable and fully recognised cultural unit in the years 2000-2002.

To give us an idea of the social relevance that Internet memes have achieved, they have even become a cultural unit that is fully recognised and identifiable.

To get an idea of the social relevance that Internet memes have achieved, they have even become marketing strategies for some companies.

Most famous Internet memes

What’s more, there is even a website, Know Your Meme, which since 2008 has been “researching and documenting Internet memes and viral phenomena”, according to the website’s own definition. 

Some memes have achieved an unsuspected virality, such as that of a couple in which the man looks at someone other than his partner, to her anger. An image repeated ad nauseam in countless contexts and which, although many people don’t know it, is the work of Spanish photographer Antonio Guillén, in a snapshot taken in Girona in 2015.

Another meme with an exponential virality, and a bit racy, is the one that emerged from “Call me by your name”, in which the actors Armie Hammer and a young Timothée Chalamet, who had not yet reached the level of fame he enjoys today, appear to be intimate. The structure of the memes arising from this Italian film is always the same: a question answered with a terse no, followed by a reply with another question.

Actors and actresses, singers or unknown people… who are no longer unknown

As we have seen in the two previous cases, the protagonists of memes can range from anonymous people (who in many cases cease to be anonymous) to people with a certain level of knowledge (such as actors, actresses, singers, sportsmen and women, etc.) whose degree of popularity soars until we forget that they were already famous before the meme went viral.

Some cases of unknown people who become famous by becoming memes are those known in English as:

  • Pain Harold. When the Hungarian electrical engineer Andras Arató decided to have a photo shoot, he could not have imagined that he would achieve worldwide fame as the image of resignation holding a cup with a forced smile.
  • Disaster Girl. A simple family photo of a five-year-old girl named Zoë Roth in front of a firemen’s drill catapulted her to fame in the guise of being a pyromaniac.
  • Success kid. A simple clenched fist gesture by a small child made him synonymous with satisfaction at things well done.

Other cases of famous memes can be comic books, such as the famous Batman punch-up.

And there are memes that have become true social phenomena… and you know it.


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