The term meme (pronounced like gene) was coined by Richard Dawkins (1976) in The Selfish Gene to apply the vocabulary of genetics to questions of culture. Although the term is applicable to any sort of cultural object that can be imitated and mutated, the Internet Meme has risen to particular prominence. An early example of an Internet Meme is the “Eternal September” (Fisher, 1994), in which a Usenet (Daniel, Ellis, & Truscott, 1980) post to alt.folklore.computers demarcated the Internet’s transition from a relatively small academic community to the exponentially expanding network of modern times.
With the advent of the World Wide Web (Berners-Lee & Cailliau, 1990) came the introduction and growth of web-based forums, such as the notable online community Something Awful (Kyanka, 1999). The Web was used to propagate one of the first widely-reposted animations, Dancing Baby (Girard et al., 1996), and by the year 2000, the Something Awful community mainstreamed one of the first popularly mutated Internet Memes, All Your Base Are Belong To Us (Dibbell, 2008).
The proliferation of broadband Internet and peer to peer file sharing (e.g. Napster, Kazaa) enabled increasingly sophisticated video sharing, setting the stage for online video phenomena such as Star Wars Kid (Raza, 2002). By 2006, the BBC estimated Star Wars Kid had been viewed over 900 million times (“Star Wars Kid is top viral video,” 2006), which was accomplished through such rapid online retransmission that its trajectory resembled that of a viral pandemic. Capitalizing on this trend, YouTube launched (Chen, Hurley, & Karim, 2005) to become a popular online repositories of viral videos.
In 2004, Something Awful community members coined the term image macro, which was named after the mechanism used to insert images into forum posts (“Image Macro,” 2004). Image macros are characterized as a background picture with one or two lines of text captioning overlaid onto the image, usually for ironic or comedic effect (see Figures 1 and 2). In the same year, a Something Awful community member named “moot” founded 4chan (Poole, 2004), which was an image board (modelled after the popular Japanese forum 2ch) that came to be known for its blanket use of the pseudonym Anonymous and as a prolific incubator of memes.
4chan, in turn, helped launch an early class of image macros known as “LOLcats” (Langton, 2007), which are recognizable as pictures of cats with phonetically or grammatically erroneous captions (e.g. “I can has cheezburger”). LOLcat image macros were collected on a popular blog entitled icanhascheezburger.com (Nakagawa & Unebasami, 2007), which became so heavily trafficked that it was sold to investors within the year for $2 million (Grossman, 2008).
In 2009, Time Magazine named 4chan’s moot as the year’s most influential person, even surpassing politicians, celebrities, and criminals for the title (“The World’s Most Influential Person Is…,” 2009). It was later revealed that the Time poll had been so thoroughly hacked by Anonymous as to manipulate not simply the #1 spot, but also #2-#21, in order to create an acrostic spelling “mARBLECAKE. ALSO, THE GAME” (Schonfeld, 2009), both of which were memes created by 4chan.
As a result of stunts like the Time Magazine hack, the public visibility of memes, and image macros in particular, created demand for simple and user-friendly tools such as quickmeme.com (Wayne, 2010) that enabled novice users with no image-manipulation experience to quickly create image macros. More recently, Cheezburger Inc. raised an additional $30 million from investors to continue the expansion of their commercial image macro/comedy empire (Crunchbase, 2012), while the Canadian magazine Adbusters used a professionally-crafted image macro to launch the Occupy Wall Street movement (Beeston, 2011).
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