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Around the turn of the century, the rising popularity of personal computing and of the Internet made it easier than ever before to create content and share it on a large scale. As a consequence, memes have become a central element of 21st century culture.
What is a meme?
According to memetics, a concept coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, the theory of evolution applies to more than just living species: any cultural element, when it is shared and reproduced by human beings, will eventually evolve or disappear, following the principles of natural selection.
The Cool S is an example of a widespread meme older than the Internet
With this in mind, a meme can be defined as anything which gets shared throughout society. It can be a symbol, a phrase, a picture, a video, or even just an idea. Regardless of its nature, every meme will follow a genetics-like pattern by changing appearance, being mixed with other memes, and often eventually being forgotten by most.
Memetics as a concept is not unanimously accepted in social sciences, but the word "meme" was chosen regardless as the name of those Internet phenomena which get shared everywhere (usually funny pictures or short videos).
The first meme to spread through the Internet were emoticons. A man named Scott Fahlman decided that symbols could replace text when expressing emotions, and a simple :-) started replacing whole phrases such as "this is funny" or "this makes me happy".
As the Internet grew and attracted more users, it slowly started becoming the main place for memes to go viral. In the mid 1990s, an animated gif of a baby doing a cha-cha dance became the first Internet meme to make its way into the real world. As people kept talking about it and sharing it, this seemingly random gif became popular enough to be showcased in one of the biggest television shows of its era, giving its perplexed audience a first glimpse into the confusing world of Internet memes.
Towards the end of the 20th century, some Internet users found a poorly translated video game to be so funny that they turned it into a huge amount of parody images and video edits. For the first time, the genetic component of memetics was becoming obvious: not only was this meme spreading everywhere, but it was also being modified, crossed with other memes, seemingly evolving over time.
In the early 21st century, the Internet became more centralized. Huge websites appeared, allowing content to reach more people than ever before. Image and video editing tools became more widespread, making the creation of custom content accessible to everyone. These two factors allowed Internet memes to reach more and more people, until almost every Internet user eventually ended up knowing what a meme was.
Over time, memes have become the main way in which 21st century culture expresses itself. The evolution of meme culture over time is documented in this compendium, in the form of cultural eras.