An Extremely Detailed Article on the Evolution of Internet Memes & Trends


Public Domain

The troll face, a simply designed exaggerated face drawn in rage comics. Used to depict the many emotions of internet users, mostly to troll.

After the emergence of the internet in 1983, new innovative ways to express humor have emerged on message boards and more recently, social media. One of the most popular expressions of humor called “memes” started in 1999 through emails and message boards. But the internet meme was not the start of the meme itself, which started several decades before.

Image of “Kilroy was here” drawn on a digital art platform. (Eli Komaiko)

“Kilroy was here” is the first meme that was popularized in society. It was popularized in the 40s by American soldiers who were deployed in war zones. It popped up so much on walls during WW2 that German dictator Adolf Hitler thought it was code for an elite American spy marking his territory. But at the time Kilroy was in popular use, the term wasn’t even invented in the English language yet.

The term “meme” was first used in Richard Dawkins 1976 book; “The Selfish Gene.” The term itself is described as, “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme.” But the internet meme wasn’t first mentioned until 1993 along with the use of message boards and internet forums. Other than the term being lightly used on the internet, the first real meme wouldn’t come until the end of the 20th century.

The internet came in swinging as soon as the 21st century began, with a large stage of experimentation using the tools that were now accessible to everyone. A huge development during this time was the increasing usage of the search engine, which allowed anyone to search up whatever they wanted. So a joke could be easily understood with a quick search, which greatly increased the number of jokes across the internet.

One of the first notable jokes that spread during the beginning of the 21st century was the term, “OH RLY?” captioned under a picture of an owl. But the popularity of “OH RLY?” was really not that big, with only a small niche group of people understanding the joke. However, this was the predecessor to one of the most popular meme formats that would overtake the internet.

The image macro, which consists of a bold font on the top and bottom of an image, has been continuously used for around 15 years now. The macro started when it was paired with LOLcats (just silly photos of cats) and a large assortment of other images. What was written in the macro varied from simple jokes to unique situations that the creator made. The image macro has had probably the largest impact on meme culture, which prompted the split of memes into different genres and niche groups.

Other notable memes that came out of this evolution involved the blow up of YouTubepoop. This came along with the introduction of social media like YouTube, Reddit, and several other websites. YouTubepoop was the remix of previously existing YouTube videos or other sources of video that would be edited to make an extreme video. Rage comics would become popular too, which allowed people on 4chan to express themselves like never before. The most notable rage comic characters are the TrollFace and the Wojak, which are highly related to the users of 4chan. A popular trend involved people voluntarily clicking a link and being taken to Rick Astley’s music video “Never Gonna Give You Up,” which prompted the term “Rick Rolling” (Look at some of the best rick rolls here). The popularity of meme music videos started to blow up along with Rebecca Black’s song “Friday.”

Painting of Keyboard Cat made by Bud Caddell. (Courtesy of Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Memes had now fully cemented themselves as part of meme culture and were no longer niche groups of people on 4chan and other message boards. But after the meme blew up there was a large transitional period, which later may have been the reason for the genre splits in meme culture (the split can be debated to be as impactful as the Great Schism in 1054). This transition from simple jokes and humor took a huge turn, as it now ventured into irony, which is the basis for current memes.

The biggest split was the beginning of the irony period, which lasted until 2017. The largest difference between memes that were previously popular was that they were universally understandable and weren’t difficult to understand. The split continued the same simple joke memes that reigned previously, but also started the way for the introduction of dank memes. But that all changed after this transitional period started to end.

Bad Luck Brian Meme by エルエルLL, Courtesy of Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Image of Grumpy Cat by Gage Skidmore, Courtesy of Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Image of Doge by Orde Saunders, Courtesy of Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

In this transitional period, notable memes that started being popular included the use of Bad Luck Brian. There was also the use of the grumpy cat, along with the image macro. A photo of a Shiba Inu termed as “Doge” became popular as well. Meme trends also started around this time with the screenshots of news reports on “Florida Men.” A huge dance trend also started, which consisted of one person dancing while normal activities took place in the background until the drop of the song “Harlem Shake,” which made all the normal activities switch to erratic dances in crazy costumes.

Image of Harlem Shake by David Cambridge. Courtesy of Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

After the transition to irony period, a new experimentation of meme templates and trends took place. Evolution was completely constant, with all periods now gradually transitioning together. The use of satire and irony remained constant to our current era. The average person who saw memes before the transition might see almost no similarities to what they originally knew. It was easy to be pushed away due to the lack of appeal and understanding, outside of the people who experienced the transition.

After this transition there was an extreme amount of memes every year since creative freedom expanded greatly. Meme trends became very popular such as the Ice Bucket challenge, the Whip-&-Nae-Nae, the dab, the bottle flip, and the mannequin challenge. A huge contribution to the trends were the popularity of new social medias like Instagram, Vine and Meme videos started to become more popular now with the growth of the MLG format, which poked fun at professional Call of Duty and other related topics from 2015.

Image of MLG Splatoon by AntMan3001, Courtesy of Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

A change from the previous era that remains to this day (mainly on Reddit) was the genre of Dank Memes. Dank memes are an ever changing transition from images & formats over time. There is such a wide variety of memes from this era to show, but the most popular were the uses of John Cena, Markiplier, Harambe and the coined term “Karen.” Perhaps the most famous dank meme was a green frog on a unicycle termed “Dat Boi.” But really, the biggest impact from dank memes was the intro of video formatted memes.

Photo of Markiplier by Gage Skidmore, courtesy of Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Wikipedia meme made by Gaioa, courtesy of Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Video formatted memes had been a thing since the beginning, but they were mostly the little brother of the picture meme. Now they started to completely overtake the now ex-popular genre. I would say that the start of video memes began with the players of the game VRchat. Players would change their characters to a poorly designed version of Knuckles from the sonic games and change their accents. The Ugandan Knuckles spread to YouTube with a large range of people animating and making their own encounters with the characters.

From this point forward, videos were the main source of meme humor. People on 4chan and Reddit didn’t evolve along with some other social medias as memes began growing crazier. Adults above the age of thirty had fully implemented their own ideals into memes and they were mostly used as a way to express their politics or things old people find funny. But users of TikTok and YouTube were only seeing memes get weirder and weirder.

Cropped Photo of Pewdiepie by Cold Ones Clips, courtesy of Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0). Cropped Photo of Area 51 Raid by David James Henry, courtesy of Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

2018 is when the post irony stage began, where memes were barely recognizable to what they once were. During this stage, songs and their music videos were the biggest target for memes. Most notable songs from this period are Crab Rave, God’s Plan, I Love It, In My Feelings, Old Town Road, and many more. Like YouTubepoop, these songs or videos were highly edited to add many crazy elements. There were also large internet events like the area 51 raid, the Pewdiepie subscriber race, and YouTube rewind. But at the end of this time, the world literally went into isolation.

Public Domain

When quarantine started, the whole world was forced on the internet to get entertainment since they were all stuck at home. The world pretty much went to the gutter, along with everyone’s humor. The era where we are still living is the same as the era that started during quarantine. I would term the era as post-post-irony. The irony has gone full circle, to the point where certain noises and pictures with no punchline or intent to be joked about were being religiously spread. Audios of YouTube videos from years in the past, screenshots from a random person’s Instagram, and other random things were now the funniest thing.

Modern day meme courtesy of @realeaterforever on Instagram/TikTok

But in our time, can these videos be considered memes anymore? For some time, shitposting was the only source of humor I saw on the internet. Humor had finally broken down to sources that were no longer explainable. But they still hold meme elements, like the spread and remixing of certain jokes and pictures on the internet. But to get with the current jokes on the internet it will probably take months to years of internet exposure to understand anything.

Never miss out on new articles!