The Fascinating History of Memes

Memes have become our constant companions during long days spent on social media, but many people are unaware of their origins and evolution.

Memes have become our constant companions during long days spent on social media, but many people are unaware of their origins and evolution.

The term “meme” is not as recent as one might think. It actually owes its origins to the British essayist Richard Dawkins. In his book “The Selfish Gene,” he coined the term “meme” as a unit of measurement for cultural evolution in human genetics.

He discussed how the brain imitates, tackles problems, learns from mistakes and experiences. So how can a scientific term come to label an entire generation of social media posts? It is simply a metaphor to identify what happens in mimetic evolution, from the Greek “mimema” meaning imitation, and it is precisely from imitation that the spirit of the meme starts. A copy and paste that allows any viral cartoon to travel the net for weeks, even reaching other continents in a matter of days.

Whether it’s an idea, a reflection of mass culture, a reference, a quote, or a funny current event, a meme has become one of the most widespread alternatives to the silence of personal pages. A meme fills the page, brings a smile, sparks discussions, and can even make you think.

For this reason, before social media, newspapers and magazines for centuries have filled their pages with cartoons, funny photographs, and captioned drawings, with the aim of breaking up the sadness and fear brought by the pages of black chronicles or war chronicles. Nothing could distract better than a hint of a laugh between a bad stock market news and the marriages of the high society.

Of course, the advent of social media worked like a launch pad. Memes slowly began to spread in the form of crude drawings or photos with captions (imitating the 90s office motivational posters). They represented stylized faces that mirrored human feelings. The speed of their production and the simple humor were a further boost, and it wasn’t long before memes took on the most disparate aspects.

The web offers them for all tastes and for all seasons, but what are the most important memes of recent years? Here is a selection of some of the most incisive.

Grumpy Cat

Grumpy Cat was a cat named Tardar Sauce and became famous for her disapproving expression. In reality, it was simply her biological appearance, in fact, although she represents disapproval turned into a meme, Tardar has always turned out to be a very affectionate cat. Unfortunately, she left us prematurely in 2019, at the age of 7.

The Wojak

The Wojak are among the first memes to have clogged the net. They pass almost as a team of human feelings. Cheerful, gleeful, hysterical, melancholic or prone to invectives, the wojak are the simplest way to convey what you are feeling.


The history of the doge meme began in February 2010, when a Japanese teacher named Atsuko Sato posted a photo of her dog Kabosu, a Shiba Inu with a perplexed look that makes him seem judgmental and confused. This specific photo is usually indicated as the photo of the doge. At the end of 2010, thanks to Reddit, the image exploded with the caption “LMBO LOOK @ THIS FUKKEN DOGE” where we see the origins of the name “doge” from the intentional distortion of “dog”.

Since then, these memes have been called “doge speak” and are still used today to express surprise and are accompanied by grammatical errors to emphasize their childishness.

Willy Wonka in the 1971 film

We have all seen that movie and those who have not seen it should remedy it immediately.

In one scene in the film, Willy is illustrating the invention of a candy that is not consumed and asks the children if they want to see the machine that produces it, leaning against a ledge. It is not clear how that scene in the film can express irony, but Willy’s relaxed and dreamy gaze can also be interpreted as that of a person waiting for a stupid answer.

Success Kid

This meme represents a child named Sammy Grimer, with a defiant expression and a clenched fist. Obviously, the young age of the actor suggests that it was all the result of a totally spontaneous pose, but this did not prevent hundreds of users from using it to represent concepts of very difficult victory. A victory over something that usually does not go as hoped, such as wearing a white shirt without staining it at a dinner or opening a window to let a fly out and actually see it come out.

Scumbag Steve

Disclaimer: The guy in the picture is not actually named Steve. He is actually Blake Boston, an American rapper standing on a doorstep wearing a terrible hat.

To his great surprise, he discovers that he has become the symbol of every popular choice. In fact, his photo is used to represent the classic contrarian.