An Abridged History of Memes

cape cod social media marketingby Brittany McSorley


Once upon a time, there were no memes. Humor only happened out loud or in writing, and a joke’s popularity was determined by how often it was repeated among friends. Often, you knew exactly what you were laughing at and how it came to be. Sometimes, though, you were completely in the dark, wondering how students in middle schools all over the country had all learned the same risqué rhyme to recite while jumping rope.


During those dark days, it was impossible to imagine today’s internet landscape, where acronyms, viral tweets, and memes reign. So, what is a meme, and how did it come to dominate online comedy?


If you asked me to define a meme on my own, I’d say something very confusing like, “It’s a digital image that’s funny for reasons everyone just gets without trying.” The Encyclopedia Britannica helpfully defines the term as a “unit of cultural information spread by imitation.” Today’s memes are usually simple, intuitive, and begging to be replicated and/or tweaked.


Memes can actually take many forms, like behaviors or fashions — anything that we’re likely to see replicated among the masses. Schoolyard rhymes and clapping games are a prime example of pre-internet memes. Remember Miss Mary Mack? Man, those were the days. And that S figure everyone drew as though it had been implanted in every child’s mind by the government?! Incredible.


The internet meme, however, was born with a truly mesmerizing phenomenon called the Dancing Baby. It’s a 3-D animation of… a dancing baby, and it took 1996 by storm. Many sources have given it the proud title of the first viral video. Truly, this little guy was all over the internet back then. It was weird; it was confusing; everyone loved it. It was shared over and over again until it had saturated online culture, just like the memes of today.


While memes used to spread via email and old-school message boards, that responsibility now falls to sites like 4chan and Reddit and platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Some memes are political, some are nonsensical, but they’re all remarkable in the way they convey a complex message in a matter of seconds. I guess the internet isn’t all bad, you know?


I’ll leave you with some of my favorite examples of more recent memes that have enjoyed some serious popularity.


Judgmental Kermit drinking tea:


Bernie and his iconic inauguration mittens:


Sue from Glee wreaking havoc:


The Ocean Spray “Dreams” TikTok:

And, of course, the Agatha wink:


If you’re feeling inspired (and how could you not be?), I invite you to make a meme of your very own here. It could become the next big thing.