From dancing babies to funny cats and political photoshops, memes spread far and wide. They make us laugh, think, and come together. But what are memes? Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, known for his popular books on science and atheism, coined the term in his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene." The word itself is a combination of "gene" and a Greek word for imitation, and he claimed that culture was the means of transmission. Decades later, we're awash in entertaining and influential memes thanks to internet culture.
The BBC recently wrote about how memes are crucial in our daily lives, carrying news, ideas, and humor in one clever little packet. Memes can help us relax about serious subjects. They also spread like jokes to give us a humorous point of view. Iconic meme stars usually get the role unexpectedly, and like world-famous Grumpy Cat, they can capture our hearts.
After adult entertainment, pictures and videos of cats are the most popular content on the internet. It's not surprising, then, that cat memes are so popular that some entrepreneurs are making a good living trafficking in them. These memes evolved into books and picture-a-day calendars, where cats provide commentary on their lives to which we all can relate.
A CGI or computer graphics demo called "dancing baby" may have been the first widely-distributed meme-style image. Short, silly or catchy clips followed, such as the one from video blogger Gary Brolsma lip-syncing and gesturing in front of his computer to the Romanian pop song "Numa Numa." His production values were horrendous, but the experience caught on, and through the wonders of meme-sharing, he became world-famous. Vlogging has become a highly profitable YouTube business for entertainers of all ages.
Text typed over iconic pictures are a meme category of their own. Overly Attached Girlfriend has "crazy eyes" and bears quotes like "leave the light on so I can watch you sleep." Success Kid fist-pumps while touting his triumphs such as buying concert tickets online. Many of these random photos -- Success Kid was just one of many pictures his mother posted on a photo-sharing site -- have become as recognizable as major brands. In a crossover, world-famous Grumpy Cat, featured on many grumpy-themed memes, also appeared on Friskies cat food packaging.
Through captions, photoshop modifications, and lucky photography, memes have provided great political and social satire. One famous example is a photograph of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a near-look-alike of U.S. President Donald Trump, being spoken to by Queen Elizabeth. The caption balloon from the Queen reads "I thought you had gone back to America."
Quoting Star Wars' Admiral Ackbar's "It's a trap!" is a popular photo comment in social media. It might be used, for example, as a funny response when someone announces their plans to visit an online friend in person. Characters from movies, television and comics can pop up in comment streams to make a point more graphically and humorously than words alone.
Cute, or kawaii in Japanese, cartoon creatures and emoji characters from Japanese pop culture are popular memes.
Hello Kitty is one of the most well-known, along with Chococat and other related images. Pusheen is a chubby gray kitty who engages in everything from sleeping to enjoying food, providing meme-style commentary such as the answer to "What are you up to?" on a messenger app -- Pusheen eating pizza says it all. Even the poop emoji has become a popular online and offline meme. Poop emoji hats, T-shirts and even a night light are available.
Even everyday photos can become memes when they accurately express a common experience. The picture that says "a thousand words" can now be used in email and messaging to share feelings of joy, despair, loneliness, and excitement wordlessly. When these pictures are used as memes, they carry a special clarity of message, as everyone knows what the "lonely guy picture" means. The same goes for a particularly poignant sports photo or a child's expression of happiness -- "Success Kid" mentioned earlier is a great example of that, even un-captioned.
Memes do for free what companies spend millions trying to achieve: getting the message out. It's no wonder Friskies hired Grumpy Cat to be their spokescat, and Success Kid appeared on billboards for Virgin Media to announce that his parents "get HD channels at no extra cost." Dos Equis created an advertising concept with a captioned Jonathan Goldsmith as "The Most Interesting Man in the World." Presented in captioned-meme form, it took off online with hundreds if not thousands of parodies such as "I don't always listen to the Rolling Stones, but when I do so do my neighbors."
Memes aren't just entertaining. As Richard Dawkins noted, they do carry ideas and opinions in a "contagious" form which spreads quickly from person to person. Social networking provides even greater velocity than email once did. While most memes are humorous, the meme is a vehicle for many more possibilities.