Can't Make It Up: The First 'Internet' Meme Is 100 This Year
From the simpler days of cats hasing cheezeburgers to the ouroboros-like origins of dank memes to state propaganda pushed by a thousand Russian bot farms, the art of the meme has come a long way during its brief history. But has it been so brief? It may shock you that, now that it's 2021, we're all set to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the internet meme.
With that kind of legacy, it's only appropriate to give this venerable communication tool an overly pompous academic retrospective. One where we ask the questions: What is an internet meme? Why is an internet meme? And most important of all: If meme, Y u no internet meme?
The First Meme Made Fun Of Dapper Dandies Back In The Roaring '20s
That's right, memes, those things your mom ignores in family group texts because she doesn't understand why that nice astronaut has a gun, have been around since before everyone had a telephone, let alone dial-up. In 2017, archememologists of the Yesterday's Print blog rediscovered what is currently considered to be the oldest meme known to man -- which you can tell is really old because it's from when everyone was still in black and white.
How You Think You Look is a meme from the deepest depths of history: 1921. The image shows a dapper young gentleman clearly on his way to a Great Gatsby theme party having his soul stolen by a newfangled flash photo camera or "flashlight." But despite maintaining his suavest stare for the seventeen minutes it took to take a picture, he'll discover to his dismay what we can already see: that he was looking less like Wallace Reid and more like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit.
Befitting such classic meme stuff, this ancient example was unearthed inside the closest thing to Twitter's "Best" algorithm in 1921: thumbing through second rate funny papers. How You Think You Look was found in an issue of Judge magazine, a humor publication that ran from 1881 to 1947. (So, the last time print was a viable business model). Aside from original content, the magazine also featured quick jokes aggregated from local college rags in its "With The College Wits" section. And that's where we find our oldest meme, hidden in between edgy sex-jokes about lap-sitting …
And anti-PC hot takes owning both flat earthers and The Man with geometry puns ...
Opposite those jokes, which have aged about as gracefully as a World War I horse stabled next to the mustard gas depot, How You Think You Look seems as pop-culturally fresh today as it was a century ago. Its enduring power was even cemented by an unwitting reboot in 2008 with the near-identical What You Think You Look Like vs. What You Really Look Like, also known as the Expectations vs. Reality meme:
But just because it resembles a modern meme, does that make Dinner Jacket Dork an internet meme itself? Can you even have internet memes before there was an internet? For that, we have to take a look at the surprisingly rich history of the meme as both a cultural concept and its own kind of language.
The 1921 Meme Has All The Tropes Of A Modern Internet Meme
While How You Think You Look resembles a modern meme on the surface, does it, in fact, play by the same rules? Or, more specifically, the same grammar? While the language of internet memes has evolved much since the halcyon days of people spamming All Your Base Are Belong To Us and Yo, Dawg memes (the internet-equivalent of speaking Latin), its syntax has remained virtually unchanged. You could speak of a kind of universal meme grammar, an innate Very Online understanding of meme structure that explains why it's as easy for us to understand a 1920s meme ...
As it would for a 1920s fellow or gal to understand a 2020s meme ...
... or, since they didn't learn our pop culture in history class as we did theirs, maybe a mix of 1920s and 2020 memes?
That's the ticket. Let's use those as examples for what is a pretty dry acamemic (academeme?) analysis of some structural pillars of memery. First up is perhaps the most common part of the meme framework: the macro-image. Like How You Think You Look, a vast majority of all internet memes are a combination of an image or images superimposed with text that adds new context. Like the vibrantly colored "/s" that is Condescending Wonka. Or the already classic Distracted Boyfriend.
The image itself may often come with a subtitle, often a quote or catchphrase. But this text remains differentiated from the macro-text by virtue of no-one bothering to sync the fonts.
Also, while these images are typically static, more and more make use of GIFs. Or, as they would've called them in the 1920s, flipbooks.
Another very popular parameter also present in the 1921 meme is the use of multiple panels. Side-by-side images juxtaposed by the meta-text have been a key element of many popular memes from Tuxedo Winnie The Pooh to Drakeposting to modern examples like This Is Fine or Woman Yelling At Cat.
This brings us to semantics. All internet memes have to be relatable on a cultural or personal level. However, the most viral-prone find a way to easily combine the cultural references with personal insights -- by which I mean "Seinfeld asking the deal about airplane food" degrees of insights into the shared human condition. In the case of How You Think You Look, it draws people in with a pop-culture-combo of a Great Gatsby-esque playboy (the Instagram Influencer of the Roaring Twenties) and mention of the new technological fad of amateur flash photography. With the reader's attention grabbed, the meme then embeds into their brains with the common ground observation that we can never find a photo of ourselves that we truly like -- thus ensuring maximum virality.
Not that any of that matters much when it comes to memes as a concept. Really, just about anything can be a meme, from the almost Dadaist deep fried memes to a bunch of people Tweeting a carp with the caption "carp" at each other.
That's because an internet meme's true parameters are not textual but intertextual -- i.e., annoyingly meta. And not only do these qualifiers separate meme from image but even the internet meme from the original meaning of the word "meme."
Yes, There's A Difference Between Memes And Internet Memes
Webster's dictionary defines (don't worry, unlike your brother's wedding speech, this is actually going somewhere) a meme in two ways. It can be "an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture" or, more specifically, "an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media." So far, I've been using "meme" and "internet meme" interchangeably. But this isn't necessarily the case. Because while every internet meme is a meme, not every meme gets the glory of being a top post on Reddit's front page.
Long before mainstream internet, the term "meme" was coined in 1976 by none other than Dr. Richard Dawkins, who, as an expert on both evolutionary biology and being an internet punchline, is considered the father of memes. Dawkins first mentions the phenomenon in his book The Selfish Gene, where he refers to them as "ideas that spread from brain to brain" -- a kind of virus that feeds on popularity. Like a catchy song. Or Kardashians. In function, they are the cultural counterparts of biological genes. Both are replicators of information and thus eternal combatants in the usefulness crucible that is natural selection. For example, Ghenghis Khan's DNA is still marauding around inside one out of every 200 humans today, but his ideas of empire haven't impregnated a lot of minds lately. Meanwhile, it's almost impossible to find direct genetic descendants of the great classic philosophers like Plato or Aristotle, but these dirty Greek bastards have pumped a buttload of their memetic material into every single generation's discourse for 2000 years.
However, during a 2013 lecture/viral marketing stunt, Dawkins posited a crucial difference between the gene-like common meme and the internet meme. "Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity," said Hermione Granger's dad. Dawkins added: "In the hijacked version, mutations are designed -- not random -- with the full knowledge of the person doing the mutating." Unlike common memes, Internet memes' forms are decided not by natural selection but by meme-making Internet users, the furthest you could get from the concept "survival of the fittest." As a side-effect, this need for creative modification means these X-memes start their life cycle already as a mutated form of an existing piece of media or meme. Philosoraptor was originally some T-Shirt art. Hide The Pain Harold was a stock image. Even Rageguy was a poop-centric MS Paint cartoon.
Another unique trait is that internet memes innately possess a breadcrumb trail back to their primary ancestor, the "First!" of their string. This implies that they can only truly procreate in the dank meme pools formed by mass media. And with these criteria being specific to the internet meme and not memetics as a whole, this data irrefutably, indubitably, undeniably probably maybe leads us to the conclusion that ...
"How You Think You Look" May Not Be The First Meme, But It Is The First Internet Meme
As my esteemed shitposting colleagues have chronicled before, several other relics contend for the throne of the original meme. But with a definition so broad as to include "viral ideas," that competition is bound to be won by the moment in time when one Stone Age knucklehead showed another Stone Age knucklehead how to make a fire.
The real title up for grabs has always been for First-Ever Internet Meme. That still leaves a lot of venerable contenders, like the snail knight doodles scooting around many margins of Medieval illuminated texts. Or the Sator Square, a proto-deep-fried meme of a Latin palindrome that popped up all over Ancient Rome and of which its pop-culture references are completely foreign to us.
But none of these manage to tick all the internet meme boxes. Some, like the Sator Square, lack the intertextual context. (What's the OG reference here, that Pompeians love palindromes?) while others never show any sign of deliberate mutation or cannot trace their origins back to a single common ancestor.
Then there are the many street art tags and stickers (Frodo Lives, Andre The Giant Has A Posse) of the late 20th century, which get darn close to being modern memes. And let's not disregard the value of the previously thought to be meme-mothership: Kilroy was here. This piece of World War II graffiti was both widely spread (across four theaters), showed signs of adaptation, and started as an intentional melding of two previous pieces of content: a British cartoon called Mr. Chad and a tag referencing American welding inspector James J. Kilroy.
But since the 1921 How You Think You Look meme predates Kilroy by almost two decades, that leaves us with a clear winner. Not only does this macro image use modern meme grammar, but it also nails its intertextual requisites of replication and deliberate creative mutation. According to research by the world's leading experts on memes, the BBC, this meme discovered in Judge magazine is, in fact, a copy of the same cartoon published the year before in a local satire magazine called the Wisconsin Octopus (reposted with their permission). That's about the closest something in 1921 can get to becoming viral. Neither is How You Think You Look a wholly original piece of creative content. Instead, it used an older Octopus cartoon as a meme-template, namely another Expectations vs. Reality two-panel joke on how blind dates sure can look different from their pictures.
There you have it. A reposted, reinterpreted meme that is now a full century old. And while it may have taken a while, this decrepit meme is also finally fulfilling its purpose of procreating on the internet. All thanks to the diligent work of meme historians, meme preservationists, and dozens of bored Twitter writers.
So thank you, How You Think You Look. If it wasn't for your pioneering nature, none of us would be where we are today: using our phone, while on the toilet, to put white text over an image of <insert celeb> eating <insert food item>. So let's raise our Roaring Twenties boob-shaped champagne glasses to your august centenary. Here's to you, old sport.
For more surprisingly dated internet stuff, do follow Cedric on Twitter.
Top Image: Judge