In our latest installment of #TBT, we investigate the origin of the meme from its Greek roots to its current role in pop culture.
The “#TBT” hashtag has been tagged a staggering 250 million times on Instagram to date. Our latest recurring segment aims to expand the hashtag into a more comprehensive exploration of vintage culture and lifestyle articles. Ranging from automotive and design to fashion and music, while touching on a broad range of additional topics, this week we examine the origins of the Internet meme.
On any given day, one quick spin through a variety of websites will inevitably unearth an Internet trend that seemingly will never run out of steam or enthusiasm because its very nature dictates refreshing and rehashing familiarity with an updated twist given the state of popular culture. The meme – generalized as an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture – seems retrofitted for the social media generation given the ease at which people can interact with people who already have compatible sensibilities given their online connection. Everyone has a favorite. Bad Luck Brian. Advice Animals. Scumbag Steve. Overly Attached Girlfriend. There are thousands of faces, illustrations and stock photographs that illicit the same familiarity as logos from bluechip brands like Coca-Cola, Nike and Kellogg’s. While many will look at the humorous connotations associated with the phenomenon, the meme’s origins are decidedly more serious.
In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, controversial evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins wrote the following: “We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.” Whereas Charles Darwin theorized what we know today to be “natural selection,” Dawkins took that theory a step further by offering that all species – specifically the individual – have a “selfish gene” that make survival the utmost priority.
Prior to the Internet, there was still a cultural spread of humorous imagery that had been re-appropriated on numerous occasions – most notably with things like “Kilroy Was Here,” “Frodo Lives!” and Shepard Fairey’s “Andre the Giant has a posse” which in retrospect was lumped in with the “street art/graffiti movement” simply because digital connectivity wasn’t something available yet. Much like Dawkins’ theory, mutations and slightly different iterations began to spread that had different meanings depending on where it was found.
There’s heated debate as to the first meme that went “viral” – given that in the early to mid ’90s, the thought of trolling and using dial-up modems as open-mic comedy night wasn’t in the back of people’s minds. Yet, there’s no denying that “Greenoch” surely captivated an audience as far back as 1996. Created by Doug Welch, a Usenet rec.martial-arts contributor, he looked to get people’s blood boiling by challenging people’s conventional thoughts on various martial arts.
“I study an ancient celtic martial art called Greenoch. It was used by a secret society called the Greenoch during medieval times for assasinations and espionage.The group were for the most part employed secretly by the royal courts of medieval Europe. The art has been secretly handed down from master to student since the 12th century and although there has been no recorded activity of the Gteenoch society in several hundred years, can vouch for the authenticity of my teacher Master Field Marshall Jim Weiss, the first non celtic Greenoch master in history. I believe Greenoch is very useful on the streets. If someone came up to me to mug me I would use Greenoch moves and then some Judo moves and then some more Greenoch moves. If there were two of them I would also use some Ninjutsu and TKD moves. As far as sport goes, Greenoch is NOT a sport and I know if a TKD guy tries anything on a Greenoch guy or a Ninjutsu guy it would be over in a flash. This is because these arts were used secretly for espionage in the middle ages and possess deadly knowledge. This enables the Greenoch or Ninjutsu practitioner to easily overpower any fighter of superior strength and athletic ability. Strategic psychological experience also matters little; its all in the moves you learn. The secret death blows and castle entry techniques are especially potent. Master Field Marshall Weiss must be able to trace his lineage back to the ancient Greenoch society, although I have never ask him. He teaches in L.A. now. I was wondering if there are any Greenoch schools in the SF Bay area. I have been studying it for almost a year now and would hate to quit now. However, I would also like to try mixing Greenoch, Ninjutsu and either Aikido or TKD. Would this work?”
While you’d assume that hundreds or even thousands of martial arts enthusiasts would come forward to dispel or discredit Welch’s claims, the opposite actually occurred. People came out of the woodwork claiming to be disciples of Greenoch – touting the different weapons, teachers, and techniques that proved that it was in the upper echelon of martial arts. Whether it was choosing to infiltrate a sub-sect that lends itself to constantly measuring one discipline versus another, Welch had not only successfully created the first meme, but the first flame war as well.