Some consider the first meme a vignette that was published in 1921 in Judge magazine, edited by the University of Iowa: it makes a joke about the difference between fanciful expectations and the stubborn reality that is later imposed. In that case the joke was as follows.
How do you think you’re going to come out when you pose for a photo and how do you actually come out. The idea is still a hit in the memesphere to this day: what you expect when you order something on the AliExpress online sales platform, and what you get delivered.
The authorship of the term meme itself is also known: it was coined in 1976 by the famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. According to Dawkins’ definition, the meme is the minimum unit of cultural information, just as the gene is of genetic information.
If we are biology and culture, the first is transmitted through genetics and the second through memetics. “Just as genes spread in a gene pool by jumping from body to body via sperm or egg cells, so memes spread in the meme pool by jumping from brain to brain by a process that, considered in its broadest sense, can be called imitation”, writes the author.
The internet meme as we now know it is also a meme in the sense of Dawkins, but he does not exhaust the term: songs, philosophical ideas, fashions in clothing or “the ways of making pots or of build bows. The biologist has declared that the current term is a “kidnapping of the original idea”, but that “kidnapping” is also a demonstration of how the format evolves and mutates over time.
A notable example of a meme, in the broad sense, that Dawkins himself offers, is the idea of God, which has managed to replicate itself in brains throughout human history, probably because of its effectiveness in giving meaning to the world of believers and alleviating their existential suffering. God is a successful meme.