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When you look up the etymology of the word "meme", you find a bunch of stuff talking about its origins in Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene of course, originally as a term to refer to an idea that can be replicated via transmission between brains with corruption along the way, in analogy to how genes are replicated and corrupted via DNA. You also quickly find Godwin (of Godwin's Law fame) explaining the term and relating it to the internet in a 1994 Wired article (using something very close to its original meaning), and I've seen some quotes from the mid-2000s as well; though I believe these might be still referring to memes in the strictly Dawkinsian sense.

But of course one of the modern senses of "meme" is something more like "a specific instance of internet culture that can is copied and spread (more or less) verbatim, often but not always based on a template". It is kind of easy to see how this meaning might have evolved, but my recollection is I don't really recall seeing the term "meme" online so much through the noughties, maybe until the later part of that decade. Certainly it could have been particular to the circles I was in, but instead there were terms to describe specific types of (what we would today call) meme like "image macros" or "lolcats", and more general terms like "internet phenomena" or "internet references", but not widespread use of "meme". I note that Know Your Meme was launched as a project in September 2007 — was the term already in widespread use this early or was Know Your Meme perhaps influential in spreading it as a term or increasing its applicability?

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  • Please quote the sources where you looked up the etymology of this word. This will help anyone interested in your question to see the research you have already done. You might also provide some data regarding the popularity of this term on the internet. I personally read it more in print, but my usage of the internet likely differ from yours. Oh, and you might tell us what it is supposed to mean.
    – David
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 14:11
  • It could be worth your time looking up the term (and associated ones) on Google Trends and Google Ngrams and post the results here.
    – dubious
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 14:12
  • @David good idea, done :)
    – Muzer
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 16:11
  • @dubious great idea, no idea why I didn't think of doing that. I blame the fact that I'm ill today. Will try that and maybe answer my own question if it works.
    – Muzer
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 16:12

1 Answer 1

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Doing a Google ngrams search, the term "internet meme" (thus attempting to normalise against Dawkinsian uses unrelated to internet culture) seems to start picking up steam in about 2005 but growth really seems to pick up in 2009-2010 which certainly fits my own feelings on the matter.

Google ngrams graph to show internet meme usage in books over time

The trend on Google Trends is substantially less clear to see, but it seems to indicate steady growth starting around 2008 and then with a rapid growth in late 2011 up to a peak in 2012, from which it dropped off. Again this fits with my personal experience more or less.

Google Trends to show internet meme search activity over time

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  • I will not mark this answer accepted for the time being as it'd be cool to figure out if there was some inciting incident of a particular thing being widely called a meme that led to the term spreading, or otherwise a reason it spread at the time it did, but maybe that wasn't the case.
    – Muzer
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 16:26
  • The thing is the word is used since people are still creating them. There is no other word for a square with a design and a comment underneath that is sent out or posted and then keeps circulating on the internet, right?
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 17:43
  • @Lambie as mentioned in my OP the old term for that particular type of meme was "image macro". And I never suggested the word should fall out of use!
    – Muzer
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 17:46
  • I am just saying it is still very much in use, that's all.
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 17:55
  • The OED's first citation in the meaning "An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations" is 1998, from Science and Technology Week in a transcript of a CNN broadcast: "The next thing you know, his friends have forwarded it on and it's become a net meme." This is discussing the dancing baby, so that could be said to be the first thing to be called a meme, even though it clearly precedes the 2010-ish popularisation of the term.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 19:00

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