Do you use memes? Do you know what I mean when I say “meme”? Do you have a favourite? Let’s start by sharing some we enjoy. Chat with a partner or a small group, and then we’ll talk about it together.
The term “meme” to describe the kind of internet parlance we’re looking at today comes from Richard Dawkins (insert editorialzing here). In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins conceived of the meme as something like the cultural equivalent of a gene:
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
– borrowed from UDG Agora
Now, memes are the vernacular of the internet.
One of the most resilient forms of internet communication is the animated GIF; they’ve had a popular resurgence recently, but they date back to 1987. They worked on the early internet because they could be highly compressed and still animate — they worked on slow, early, dial-up modems. And they’re popular now because they take up very little data to share compared to a video clip of the same length.
The GIF succeeded in part because Netscape started supporting it in 1995, which is when you started to see things like this on every website:
It was unnecessary then; it is unnecessary now. But in the days before rich, multimedia-ready internet, it was a way to make a picture move that people could download with relative ease.
The meme and the GIF combined in the 2000s, with the emergence of sites like You’re the Man Now, Dog in 2001 (the website owner was famously sued in 2004 by the actor who played Screech on Saved by the Bell; you really had to be there, the 2000s were a trip).
This was all before the Web 2.0 revolution. When it came, GIFs fell largely out of favour — they hadn’t been used in a particularly classy way, and in the era of the iPhone web design got sleeker and more minimalist.
But! As a result, no one wanted giant Flash files for animating content on the internet and everyone was sick of splash pages. Enter: the return of the GIF. Combined with (a) the GIF format entering public domain in 2004, (b) the rise of YouTube in 2005, and (c) smart phones needing small, nimble files to render animations, GIFs as we now know and use them emerged.
Regardless of the specific animation, web designers and engineers trusted the GIF’s compressed file size to load on early 56k modems and outdated web browsers. On early webpages, the average two-minute YouTube embed would have required about 40 minutes of buffering.
– from the Mashable history of the GIF
And also… THE REACTION GIF.
Leave Brittney Alone in 2007 was probably the first Reaction GIF to go viral, and they became a big part of Tumblr parlance when it launched in 2007 as well. Reaction GIF databases began emerging in 2010. They’re a great example of how we use GIFs to stand in for language or non-verbal communication in social media (I even use them for course evaluations).
And it seems like the next iteration of GIFs is to use them to create art.
But the GIF would seem to be here to stay. Technologically speaking, it’s portable and durable. Perhaps more importantly, it’s also expressive and fun. It has hopped from platform to platform for three decades without stopping, and remained popular in its highest and lowest resolutions, whether animated or cinematic, ironic or sincere.
So GIF on, internet. Here’s to another 30 years.
– from Vox’s history of the GIF