The Evolution of Internet Memes.

How Internet memes grew and evolved over the years.


1996 - Dancing Baby.

In the Autumn of 1996, the first Internet meme was born. This "meme" took the form of a 3D animation of a dancing baby. The animation, which is simply referred to as "Dancing Baby", existed inside a sample file that came packaged with a piece of 3D rendering software called Character Studio.

Dancing Baby - The first Internet meme

Users of this software were able to take this sample file and render their own videos of the dancing baby and share it. As a result, videos of "Dancing Baby" began to spread via email and Internet forums.

Shortly afterwards, the video was converted into an animated GIF. This reduced the animation's file size and made it easier to share.

Much like the viral memes that would follow it in the years to come, Dancing Baby continued to spread throughout the Internet until it eventually "broke out" into the real world and gained mainstream exposure. It was at this stage that it began to appear in trade show demo reels, commercials and local TV broadcasts.

In January of 1998, the animation appeared in an episode of Ally McBeal. Later, it was parodied by TV shows such as The Simpsons and Celebrity Deathmatch.

The first Internet meme had blown up and run its course.

1998 - Demotivational Posters.

In the late 1990s and early naughties, "Demotivational Posters" began to rise in popularity. These posters parodied motivational posters by taking the opposite approach and trying to diminish the reader's self-esteem:

An example of a demotivational meme

Eventually, demotivational posters began to evolve out of their original format. They were no longer just simple parodies of motivational quotes. The format became much looser and flexible, allowing creators to make a funny comment or a smartass quip about practically any kind of image:

Demotivational memes were extremely popular at the start of the new millennium

These kind of demotivational posters remained popular throughout the naughties.

Early 2000s - Something Awful.

Something Awful is a comedy website that contains blogs, photoshopped images and funny media reviews. However, the website will always be better known for the impact that its forum community had on Internet culture in the early 2000s.

One example is the old meme "All your base are belong to us", which was popularized by the forum at the start of the new millenium. The phrase originated from a poorly-translated cutscene in the arcade game Zero Wing:

All Your Base are belong to us

The meme grew in popularity when users on the Something Awful message boards began to share an animated gif of the cutscene. One user also created a techno dance remix that included the phrase as a voice over. By 2001, the phrase was being reported on by mainstream sources such as Wired and The Guardian.

Something Awful users, who were known as "SA Goons", were the ones who created the original "creepypasta" story about Slender Man - an unnaturally tall humanoid figure that wore a suit and had no face.

It is also worth noting that "SA Goons" popularized the term "Let's Play", which is still used today to describe video game playthroughs.

2005 - Chuck Norris facts.

"Chuck Norris facts" were absurd and hyperbolic claims about the toughness of actor Chuck Norris. An example of such a fact:

Chuck Norris doesn't read books. He stares them down until he gets the information he wants.

The "facts" originated on the Something Awful forums in 2005. Initially, they were centered around actor Vin Diesel. However, shortly afterwards, forum members began to use Chuck Norris as the subject instead.

The switch in character worked, and by 2006, these factoids had grown so popular that Time Magazine were referring to Chuck Norris an "online cult hero".

2005 - 4Chan.

You can't really talk about the evolution of memes without mentioning 4chan - a controversial imageboard website that was founded in October of 2003. From the mid-naughties onward, the communities that sprung up on 4chan cultivated their own in-jokes and trends. In many cases, this involved re-using the same image over and over again in different ways. Users would take an original image or a statement, modify it slightly and then repost it. From that point onward, the joke would snowball until there were hundreds of different variations.

It was on 4chan that the entire concept of an "Internet meme" took center stage. While the average person didn't even know what a meme was, 4chan users were making sarcastic in-jokes about how the word was pronounced and debating the finer points of "what is and what isn't a meme".

At one point in time, the production of memes was pretty much limited to 4chan and its offshoots. If you wanted to find new memes, you went to 4chan.

A few examples of these old 4chan memes included the likes of Epic Fail Guy, "COMBO BREAKER", "Shoop Da Whoop", Slowpoke, "Pool's Closed", "An Hero", Longcat, "Dat Ass", "Newfags Can't Triforce", "Then Who Was Phone" and more.

Memes like these were like secret in-jokes that were difficult to understand unless you actually visited the site and hung around for long enough.

"Milhouse isn't a meme."

One example of an old 4chan meme is the statement: "Milhouse isn't a meme." The meme, which started in the mid-2000s, saw 4chan users posting inflammatory questions such as "Is Milhouse a meme yet?" Such a question inevitably lead to faux arguments in the comments section and sarcastic replies such as:

Milhouse isn't a meme. However, "Milhouse isn't a meme." IS a meme.

Of course, nobody actually cared about whether Milhouse was a meme or not. In reality, I think that the whole purpose of this trend was to make fun of those who spent their time arguing about such things.

Milhouse is not a meme

And people did argue about this kind of stuff. A lot. In fact, I still remember how the term "image macro" was used to describe funny images that didn't meet the strict "criteria" of a meme and how anonymous posters would berate you if you got it wrong.

Reaction images: A picture paints a thousand words.

4chan also popularized the use of reaction images. Reaction images are images of people or screenshots of cartoon characters that portray a specific emotion. These images are often used as replies instead of actual text.

For example, if somebody posted a photograph of something that was disgusting, users on 4chan would respond to the thread with reaction images such as the one below:

An example of a reaction image

A lot of the more popular reaction images from that period have continued to live on. You'll still see some of them being used as Twitter replies in 2020. In other cases, the reaction image has been amalgamated into other formats such as "caption memes":

Reaction images being used in memes

2006 - Lolcats.

Lolcats were image macros of cats that were captioned with bad grammar and "lolspeak." The concept behind the trend was that the captioned text represented how cats would speak:

Lolcat memes became popular around 2007

The meme most likely originated from 4chan, which was regularly flooded with photographs of cats each Saturday. A day that many users on the website referred to as Caturday.

Lolcats became a mainstream phenomena in 2007, after a website called "I Can Has Cheezburger?" was founded to collate the images. The website exploded in popularity and by May, it was receiving 1.5 million hits per day.

2007 - Rickrolling.

Rickrolling is a "bait and switch" prank that involves tricking other users into watching a video of Rick Astley's song "Never Gonna Give You Up".

Like most of the memes from this era, the prank was born on 4chan. The trend evolved out of a similar bait and switch prank called "Duckrolling", which had become popular on 4chan back in 2006. "Duckrolling" saw 4chan users tricking each other into clicking on link that led to a photograph of a duck on wheels. This prank was accomplished by claiming that the link led to something that was far more exciting.

Rickrolling became a thing in March of 2007 when one 4chan user posted a link and claimed that it led to the new trailer for the highly-anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV game. However, when users clicked on the link, they were incensed to discover that it was actually the music video for Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up".

The trend quickly caught on and by the summer of 2007, Rickrolling had essentially replaced Duckrolling.

Rickrolling is notable step in the evolution of memes because it was the first 4chan trend that fully exploded into the public domain. By 2008, it was being referenced by mainstream sources and on April Fool's day of that same year, Youtube turned all of their featured video links into a Rickroll. By November, Astley's music video had over 20 million views.

The mainstream popularity of Rickrolling blew up so much in 2008 that it culminated in Rick Astley making a surprise appearance at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

2008 - Rage Comics.

Rage Comics were short and poorly-drawn comics that were created using pre-made cartoon faces. The format originated on 4chan in 2008 before spreading to other websites such as Reddit. The first ever Rage Comic was a short four-panel comic about how irritating it is to get splashback while sitting on the toilet:

The first ever Rage Comic

The trend exploded and by the end of 2009, thousands of comics were being made on a daily basis.

Rage Comics were one of the first memes to leave 4chan and "live on" in other parts of the Internet. This was because of a number of reasons:

  1. The comics touched on topics that most people found relatable and funny.
  2. The meme was easy to understand. There was no special in-joke that you needed to understand.
  3. Several websites had their own Rage Comic generators. This meant that you didn't need to know how to use Photoshop or MS Paint in order to make a comic.

The meme's crossover onto Reddit took place at the end of 2008. On the 29th of December, 2008, the r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu subreddit was created. Within months, it had hundreds of thousands of subscribers. Unlike the disorganized nature of 4chan threads, Reddit's voting system allowed the best comics to float to the top. From there, they would be picked up and reposted to forums and meme websites such as 9GAG.

Reddit tirelessly churned out rage comics like a conveyor belt, much to the annoyance of the "purists" over on 4chan, who felt as though the meme they created had gone too mainstream and that it was now being flogged like a dead horse.

On Reddit, the meme remained popular for a number of years, as new "Rage Faces" were regularly added to the original set:

Rage Comic characters

Each new rage face was sort of like a meme inside a meme. When a new rage face caught on, it would trend for a while until the next one arrived. This is one of the major reasons why the trend managed to have such a relatively long shelf live.

2011 - Advice Animals.

Between 2011 and 2014, Advice Animals became the ruling meme format on the Internet. Although the format was technically born in 2006 and it had started to grow in popularity in 2010, it wasn't until 2011 that the format really blew up.

The meme grew out of an image called Advice Dog, which was originally posted to a gaming forum website called Mushroom Kingdom back in 2006. Advice Dog's sole purpose was to give people poor advice:

Advice Dog

In December of 2010, the /r/AdviceAnimals subreddit was created on Reddit. In the months that followed, the meme evolved into a number of different formats, such as [10] Guy, Scumbag Steve and Good Guy Greg:

Advice Animal memes

By the end of 2011, Advice Animal memes had pretty much overtaken Rage Comics in popularity:

Advice Animal memes became more popular than Rage Comics

The Advice Animal format was a notable step in the evolution of memes, as it further blurred the lines between the term "meme" and older concept of an "image macro":

Memes vs Image Macros

Like Rage Comics, the Advice Animals format managed to maintain its popularity with the continuous introduction of new characters, all of which served their own purpose. It wasn't until 2015 that the popularity of Advice Animals began to decline.

2014 - Twitter memes / Caption memes.

Twitter memes, or "caption memes", are memes that typically have a white border and a caption above them. They are by far the most prevalent meme format on the Internet right now. In most cases, the format involves pairing an reaction image with a caption:

Relatable memes

The trend of using reaction images dates back to the early days of 4chan. However, at some point around 2014, Twitter users started to upload reaction images and combine them with relatable captions.

This format is essentially the amalgamation of several previous trends:

  • Mid 2000s: The 4chan trend of using reaction images to reply to somebody.
  • Mid 2000s: The "My Face When" meme that originated on 4chan, in which users would write ">mfw" after telling a greentext story and then select a reaction image that summed up how they felt about the situation.
  • 2011: The rise in popularity of subreddits such as /r/reactiongifs, where Redditors would post "reaction gifs" that were accompanied by an appropriate and relatable title.

On Twitter, popular subcultures such as "Black Twitter" helped to spread this new caption format:

A meme from Black Twitter

These Twitter memes were regularly screenshotted by others and shared to other platforms such as Instagram, Reddit and Facebook. However, in many cases, the person sharing the meme would crop out the Twitter user's details, leaving only the caption and the image.

Generally speaking, this wasn't done to intentionally deprive the author of receiving credit. Instead, the author was cropped out because the person sharing the meme was forced into reducing the height of the screenshot:

A Twitter meme

For example, Instagram's aspect ratio can make it extremely difficult to share "longer" memes without cropping out parts of the image. On Facebook, if an image is too long, the top and bottom parts are hidden from the timeline preview until a user manually clicks into it and loads the full version. This typically results in less likes and shares, as most people will just scroll past it.

Once these cropped versions went viral on Reddit, Instagram and Facebook, they were downloaded or screenshotted and then shared around again on forums, Whatsapp groups and websites.

As more and more of these cropped Twitter memes started doing the rounds, other users from other websites started to get in on this simplistic new format. Using Photoshop, meme apps and other online meme generators, content creators began to manually generate their own white-border "caption memes" outside of Twitter.

From that point onward, it was no longer just a Twitter format. It had become THE format.

Why did Advice Animal memes die off?

This new "caption format" quickly outgrew the older "Advice Animal" format for a number of reasons:

  1. It was simple and easier to read. The new format had clear dark text on a white background. In contrast, Advice Animals consisted of bulky outlined text on top of an image.
  2. The new format allowed meme creators to use more text. The problem with Advice Animals was that longer pieces of text obscured the main image and made it look cluttered and unappealing to look at. You also couldn't format it if you wanted to add newlines, etc.
  3. Unlike Advice Animals, caption memes didn't have an unwritten "rule" about what kind of images you could use. This made the format far more flexible and varied. You no longer needed to hunt down an appropriate Advice Animal character to shoehorn your joke into. You could now find an appropriate image that actually matched what you wanted to say.
  4. Because caption memes were far more varied, people didn't tire of them as quickly. On the other hand, people were beginning to feel jaded by the fact that they had been looking at the same set of Advice Animal characters for the past four years.

Today, the caption meme is still by far the most popular meme format on the Internet. No other format has gained as much acceptance and exposure from the general public. Its dominance is so well defined that when most people think of "memes", they think of those "funny images with the white border and text over them".

2017- Label memes.

The second most popular format on the Internet today is the "label meme". This format involves labelling the characters or objects in an image for comedic effect:

An example of a label meme

Although the original format of labelling gifs has been around since 2012, the label memes that we see today only started to gain widespread popularity in 2017.

The format started to become widespread after the "Respect Women" trend went viral in the first half of 2017. The trend consisted of a series of sarcastic memes about how much the creator of the meme respected women:

Respect Women meme

In August of 2017, the popularity of the format was further boosted by the "Distracted boyfriend" meme going viral:

Distracted Boyfriend

Although the label meme format continues to remain popular, it is unlikely that it will usurp the position of caption memes. This is because finding a suitable image and Photoshopping text onto it is slightly more difficult than simply making a caption meme. For now, I expect that both formats will continue to co-exist.