The term “meme” originated from Richard Dawkins in 1976. His book, The Selfish Gene, argued that memes “are to culture what genes are to life”.
Memes have since evolved from Dawkins’ original theory. The memes we create and consume today are “Internet Memes”. Instead of mutating by random change, there is no attempt at accuracy of copying. Internet memes are intentionally altered.
At the turn of the millennium, the world wide web began to take off. Computer software became accessible to all. People from around the world could connect in seconds. The early and mid-2000s brought a variety of memes, most being in video format. From “It’s Peanut Butter Jelly Time”, to “Jill and Kevin’s Wedding Entrance”, internet memes began crossing mediums, appearing on popular television shows such as Family Guy and The Office. Which signified the growing power of the internet meme.
2010 was the beginning of a decade dominated by the internet, social media, technology, and of course, memes. Platforms such as Tumblr, Vine, Reddit, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram became hubs for finding memes of all kinds. Internet memes became prevalent in everyday society.
The prevalence of memes normalized the messages portrayed through them.
Often memes were passive-aggressive, critical, or dark in nature. While a good chunk of internet memes remained harmless and humorous. But, many saw a significant rise in content that promoted stereotypes, racism, and hate. There is no greater example of a meme that used to promote evil than “Pepe the Frog”.
For the first part of Pepe’s existence, the frog was for teenagers who needed a laugh. For the latter part of Pepe’s existence, he became a tool used by David Duke, Donald Trump, and the alt-right movement.
Images of the frog dressed in Ku Klux Klan garb, Nazi uniforms, and as Donald Trump accompanied by captions with anti-semitic and racist messages flooded the internet. In 2016 the Anti-Defamation League declared Pepe a hate symbol. This occurred as a result of the alt-right’s adoption of the meme, and its use during the 2016 Presidential Election.
Scholars began to ponder if memes had a place in politics, as Pepe did in 2016. The Brown Political Review published an article suggesting that memes are a powerful communication tool. They stated: “Humor has always been a vessel for engaging the masses in areas that might otherwise be of little public interest, and memes are no exception.” The rapid and viral nature of memes makes them a powerful tool for shaping the public’s image of different candidates.
An article published by The University of Illinois argues that “we live in a different time, where culture and international exchange is pervasive, especially with technology closing that gap.
The above articles only began to scratch the surface of the role memes play in our society. But both allude to the idea of how important memes have become in communicating with one another. Whether it is in relation the spreading a political ideology or a sub cultural message among friends, memes can communicate things that words simply cannot.