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What was the first meme? A critical question, answered (sort of)

<i>Courtesy HFA Studio / Autodesk</i><br/>The famous Dancing Baby
Courtesy HFA Studio / Autodesk
The famous Dancing Baby

By AJ Willingham, CNN

(CNN) — Trying to pinpoint the earliest internet meme is like trying to discern the first written word, or the first time someone sliced a loaf of bread; a futile effort, but one that unearths fascinating discoveries.

Today, memes as a social and linguistic currency are so essential to the way we communicate, we may not always notice what we’re doing. But every time we parrot a TikTok sound or even parody a famous beginning line of literature, we’re engaging in a long and fruitful culture of memes that actually predated our online lives. Indeed, there are several candidates for the honor of “First Meme Ever,” but to understand them, we must do some further excavation.

What is a meme?

The definition of a meme depends on the context. It is a scientific concept, first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the 1970s. It’s also an anthropological concept that describes behaviors or ideas that pass among groups of people. Then, there’s the specific internet concept that describes pictures, phrases, videos or other artifacts that circulate and get remixed among social media platforms and often bleed into real life.

Whatever the context, the idea is the same: A meme is something that is shared among people, often evolving and adapting as it goes. It’s not a terribly strict definition. Depending on who you ask (and how familiar they are with the perpetual stew of internet foolery), things like 2013’s “Harlem Shake” craze, or bizarre celebrity catchphrases, or even something as simple as a certain outfit could be considered memes — or not.

Memes before the internet

It’s clear memes existed before the internet, which makes sense since people have been doing weird stuff since the dawn of recorded history. They’ve always poked fun at relatable situations, written inappropriate things in inappropriate places and adulated cats to distraction (When the Victorians got a hold of photography technology, what did they do? Dressed up their cats. We’re all the same.)

In terms of a format that bears resemblance to current meme concepts, internet historians have honed in on some two-panel cartoons from early 1920s periodicals as proto-memes of sorts. In one, the left panel shows a very dapper gentleman supposedly out on the town, with the caption “How you think you look when a flashlight is taken.” On the right is a very un-dapper, very goofy looking cartoon version of the same fellow. “How you really look.” Ha!

Even a century later, it’s still a humdinger, and it exhibits one major reason that memes spread so efficiently: They often capture a humorous shared experience. “Expectation vs. reality” memes are still very popular — and very relatable — today.

The first internet memes to make it big

Not all memes are made for relatability, though. Sometimes they’re just silly. One of the first memes to gain widespread attention in the internet age was the Dancing Baby. Yes, it was that simple: an image, GIF or video of a computer-animated dancing baby. The original Dancing Baby was actually a sample file for a software company called AutoDesk, who used such files to show customers the capabilities of its animation plug-in. The baby’s creators, Michael Girard, Robert Lurye and John Chadwick, told CNN in 2022 that remixing the baby was part of its original intention.

For some reason, the baby was a hit, and was shared through email chains and chatrooms (the ’90s equivalent of social media). It attained real icon status when it appeared as a recurring hallucination on the ‘90s comedy drama “Ally McBeal.”

The dancing baby became a talisman of sorts for the time. “The Internet in 1996 was still a dreamlike and innocent technology,” the baby’s creators say.

Another extremely powerful meme format, the “image macro,”in the early years of the 2000s. Most people using the internet today will recognize the form, which is essentially a captioned picture. The earliest image macros were especially notable for their one-or-two line text captions, which were often rendered in white Impact typeface.

Early image macros fell into a few different genres, like LOLcats, which are just captioned pictures of cats that follow neatly in the traditions of our weird 19th century forebears. The extremely popular 2007 meme and phrase “I can has cheezburger?” which physically hurts to type in the year 2023, is arguably one of the first and most famous LOLcat memes.

Advice animal” image macros feature different animals or humans that each have their own theme, like Awkward Penguin or Courage Wolf. They didn’t need to be animals, either: Advice animal meme formats featuring Morpheus from “The Matrix” franchise or Boromir from “The Lord of the Rings” became so popular they’re easily recognized today. Of course, to understand these memes one needs to already know the context: They need to know the Awkward Penguin meme will describe an awkward situation, or that Boromir’s famous line from “The Lord of the Rings” is “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”

These macros became popular around 2005 and serve as the predecessors, in both form and content, for a lot of modern memes that rely on devices of comparison, humorous misdirection or two-line cadences.

Memes are basically public inside jokes, and their evolution is so rapid and varied it’s hard to explain their general impact. From a dancing baby to clip art of penguins (and of course, the eternal allure of a good cat photo), memes have become not just one language, but a countless constellation of languages, appealing to every possible subculture, interest, identity and topic. If they don’t make sense, that’s okay. Someone, somewhere, totally gets it.

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