Memes, the language that revolutionized the internet

Memes, the language that revolutionized the internet


Images that shaped humankind and transformed communications

When did humanity first hear the word meme? Many of us could say that it is one of those words that defines modernity; any political or artist’s mistake becomes a meme, our parents’ phrases or uncomfortable or funny situations that we have all been through, have now invaded the internet. But where did they come from, when did they arrive, when will they go away, what was the first meme?

The word meme comes from the Greek mimema, and means something that is imitated. It was first coined in 1976 by the biologist Richard Dawkins, but memes actually existed long before Dawkins used it in his work The Selfish Gene. In it, the word meme is posited as a minimal unit of cultural transmission, either from one person or group of people to another. In simpler language, it is like our cultural gene, which is transmitted from generation to generation, but presents variations in each individual and time.

55 years before Dawkins, Judge Magazine published in 1921 a drawing accompanied by the text “as you think you look in the picture, as you really look”, an image not very far from today’s memes: a simple drawing and a text very close to a real situation that almost all of us have gone through.

This image is not considered by many as the first meme, since the main and most important characteristics of memes is their mass dissemination, an aspect that due to the conditions of the time and the media could not be fulfilled, however, it is considered one of the precursors of memes.

Now, the first meme published on the Internet came out in 1998 and was replicated through multiple email chains and blogs, it was adapted and modified many times, and its song and dance was interpreted hundreds of times, something very characteristic of today’s digital communities and Transmedia Narratives. It consisted of a gif of rodents dancing to the accelerated rhythm of “Whistle Stop” by Roger Miller.

With time, in 2003 the most viral memes began to arrive, those of cats, shared through the first social networks such as Hi5 or MySpace, and from that moment the internet, the networks and our lives were filled with felines. It is no longer necessary to write a lot or put an emoji, gif or sticker, a meme says more than a thousand words, but what can science tell us about this change in our communication?

In 2015, Walter Jose Castañeda, PhD in Design, leader of the research group Aesthetics and Social in Visual Design at the University of Caldas (attached to the C-Transmedia Research Center), analyzed the relationship between memes and their transmissibility in the article Memes and design: contrast between verbal and aestheticizing messages. To this end, Castañeda conducted fieldwork with users of the Facebook page “Memes U de Caldas”, studying how they understood, used and created the memes that circulated on social networks.

One of the conclusions he reached in his research was that memes “obviate any relationship that their components may have with the image from which they originate“, namely, that the meme image is not the same as the image of the meme itself. That is, the image of a cat doing what cats usually do has nothing to do with the phrase and the context in which we have put it, but together they make up a complete composition that communicates and conveys a message. More broadly, the images in memes fulfill a mimetic function, they do not present a symbolism or possess aesthetic qualities but are a referent or complement of the total meme.

Beyond the images that we usually see in memes, Dr. Castañeda also analyzed the linguistic aspects of these, and like the linguist David Crystal who investigated chat communications, he concluded that written communication in them is presented in the same way as speech, this, because precisely what is sought with memes is to produce a very simple message that allows everyone to understand it and create new ideas or more memes from the original.

We could say then that memes have existed for millions of years (except for their massive diffusion) as images that complement a text or a message so that it can be understood by everyone. Moreover, being the minimum unit of transmission of a message, research such as Walter Castañeda’s allows us to understand the processes of communication and expand the current information on the creation of images and symbolism, an aspect that many linguists consider as the key feature that differentiates human beings from other animals.

You can read the complete work of researcher Walter Castañeda here: Memes and design: contrast between verbal and aestheticizing messages.

Editorial staff
C-Transmedia Communications

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