The history of memes is littered with corpses of dead jokes, tired graphics, and words that once inspired crazed fandom. While a few people might be using narwhals, bacon Band-Aids, or zombie graphics like they’re still hot, most people move on from memes as soon as a new one becomes big.
A meme, for anyone unsure what to include in the category, is any photo, video, phrase, or other type of communication, which spreads and self-replicates quickly (or “goes viral,” as they used to say). The term ‘meme’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976.
Many people liken a meme’s popularity and success to natural selection, in that a meme spreads through variation, mutation, inheritance, and competition. In the 1990s an entire field of study was dedicated to meme theory as cultural phenomenon (Mimetics), with the intent to study meme development and cultural diffusion.
Here is a look at the history of memes, from the Rick Roll to today’s funniest jokes that are about to be added to meme generators.
- Dancing Baby – First appeared in 1996 after appearing on the then-popular television series Ally McBeal.
- Hamster Dance – First appeared in 1999 in Disney’s Robin Hood. This meme boomed from four visits per day to 15,000 during popularity.
- Star Wars Kid – In 2002 a boy in Quebec made the mistake of filming this scene, and the even bigger mistake of leaving the tape in his school’s basement. Classmates uploaded it to the Internet in 2003, where it was viewed more than 900 million times before the Star Wars boy sued his classmates.
- LOLCats – This phenomenon became popular around 2006 when the domain lolcats.com was registered. People still seem enamored with cat pictures, although for the most part the text has fallen off.
- Dick in a Box – Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg sung this song on Saturday Night Live in 2006. The clip has been viewed hundreds of millions of times, but is frequently deleted and moved. Interestingly, both ladies in the video are now famous for the hit movie Bridesmaids.
- LonelyGirl15 – A young girl pretended to be lonely and strange in 2006 and ended up quite famous by the end of 2008. People were upset when they realized she was acting in order to get YouTube ad dollars.
- Rick Roll – In 2007 4Chan punks used a Rick Astley video, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” as a mirror for the supposed site of the Grand Theft Auto IV trailer. Fans of Grand Theft clicked the link and found Astley bee-bopping around the stage in a tan trench. In 2008 Astley himself punked fans at a Macy’s Day Parade, and since then the Rick Roll has waxed and waned popular with Internet users.
- Thriller – Filipino prisoners created a remake of Michael Jackson’s popular video “Thriller,” which has been viewed more than 100 million times. Many people credit this video for inspiring flash mob dancers.
- The Narwhal Bacons at Midnight – This phrase was coined on Reddit around 2010 in order to describe redditors without real lives, as opposed to those who haven’t discovered the awesomeness of Reddit.
- Bacon – A delicious meat and a recent meme, bacon quickly became a celebrated object. From Band-Aids to bacon soaps, people could not get enough of it.
- Zombies – From hit movies to funky cartoon drawings, zombies took the Internet by storm around 2008. Their popularity seems to have peaked in 2011, with a drastic downturn this year. Many people attribute their popularity to the failings of vampires in Twilight and the need for a new horror theme. Some people claim the Bath Salts epidemic also encouraged zombie fans to unite online in hordes.
- Scumbag Steve– In 2011 a random dude who became a meme then tried to “sue the Internets” and ended up loving his so-called celebrity.
- Errmahgerd! – This meme became popular in early 2012 and was intended to mock retainer wearers. The lispy text is similar to LOLcats in many ways, which might be why it caught on so quickly.
Knowing which joke will become the next popular meme is a matter of studying the social aggregate sites memes come from (such as Reddit, 4Chan, StumbleUpon, Google+, YouTube, and Facebook). Often, the third time you see an idea shared you can be sure that it’s about to flood your stream from every friend on your list. Here are a few of the jokes circulating now that could quickly become Internet memes.
While not every joke becomes a sensation, most ideas that reach the front pages of popular sites will be added to meme generator sites. Being added to these generators, which makes it easy for any person to add text to a meme, is a sure sign that an idea (whether photo, video, website, parody or other) is a memorable meme.