We send them to each other every day, they allow us to make friends and sometimes serve as punctuation, yet – and although their existence was theorized as early as 1976 –, it is difficult to know what is the first meme of the story. A bit like urban legends, we rarely know who created a meme, and when it was born. But as here, we are not afraid of crazy investigations, we have investigated so that you do not have to do it.
The Meme From Before (Same) Internet
The first meme would have appeared before the Internet even existed, in 1921. We are not talking here about an ancient work which would have been decorated a posteriori with inscriptions to stick to our 21st century, but of an already complete meme. . Imagined over a century ago in comic book form, the meme features a “Expectations vs. Reality” effective where an elegant young man goes from “what he thinks he looks like when photographed with a flash” et “what it really looks like”. The drawing was published in The Judgea satirical magazine from the University of Iowa.
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Why it might not be a meme: because a meme is meant to be shared from person to person, it’s not supposed to leak from a single source to an audience. In addition, the design has not been reimagined by a third party, nor taken up or diverted to tell something else in order to express a universal reaction from a particular situation. It was created as is, including inscriptions.
Why we decide that it is one anyway: because in 1976, Richard Dawkins defined the meme as a cultural element that relies on the imitation of human behavior. The cartoon therefore hits the bullseye. Moreover, it’s still quite pleasant to imagine that a century ago, our ancestors and ancestors shared the same humor as us – the equivalent of 2023 could be: your reflection in the mirror vs. the front camera of your phone.
TV star meme
In the fall of 1996, six years after the very first Internet page went online, an animated image of a dancing baby spinning around on a black background was published. Designed by Michael Girard, John Chadwick (two students from, well, Ohio State University, again her) and Susan Amcloud who had just launched their animation company, the “Dancing Baby” was basically a standard file used to promote the trio’s software. According to one of its creators questioned by BuzzFeedthe video mesmerized the crowds thanks to the technical prowess it presented as well as the dissonance felt between the baby’s small body and its adult movements.
Why it might not be a meme: one could argue that the baby is more of a gif than a meme. In the common imagination, a meme is a photo or a drawing that tells something.
Why we decide that it is one anyway: although conceived before the appearance of social networks, the video was widely shared by… email. The appearance of the “Dancing Baby” in an episode ofAlly McBeal sparked a media frenzy over the video, and a high school student named Rob Sheraton embedded the file on his site so anyone could download it and tweak it to their liking. And the meme was.
The theoretical meme
You’ve probably heard of “Godwin’s Law,” which states that “the longer an online discussion goes on, the more the probability of finding a comparison involving the Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches one”. Mike Godwin, theorist of this empirical law to which he gave his name, described his point as a meme as early as 1994.
In the article titled “Meme, counter-meme”he explains that he imagined his theory in 1990 as an example of memetics – a field of study that “attempted to apply the concepts of the theory of evolution to the study of human culture” based on the meme concept imagined by biologist Richard Hawkins in his book The Selfish Genepublished in 1976.
Why it might not be a meme: because it’s not super-funny, we grant you, and it’s more an idea than an image.
Why we decide that it is one anyway: because its creator affirms it. For him, a meme is “an idea that works in the mind the way a gene or a virus works in the body. And an infectious idea (we’ll call it a ‘viral meme’) passes from mind to mind, just as viruses jump from body to body”. He wrote that he understood that his experience was “a success” when he saw people quoting the law by themselves, without knowing that it came from him.