- Memes have origins that date back to before the internet, with people communicating through pictures, drawings, and songs.
- The Dancing Baby, also known as Baby Cha-Cha, is considered one of the first memes on the internet.
- The All Your Base Are Belong to Us meme originated from a poorly translated line in the video game Zero Wing.
- The Hamster Dance website, featuring cartoon hamsters dancing to a sped-up version of a song from Disney’s Robin Hood, gained hundreds of millions of views in 1999.
- The Pancake Bunny meme started with pictures of a bunny balancing things on its head and became a dismissive response to nonsensical posts.
Unless you’ve been without a computer for the past twenty years, you probably know the internet has its own niche language. From Leet (1337) Speak to texting slang such as LOL, it can sometimes be hard to decipher words and jokes we see online.
Another great example of this almost inside joke is internet memes. Memes are another form of expression on the internet, often sent as hilarious replies in chats and forums. And you’d be mostly correct if you said memes have existed since the internet.
The fact is, memes have origins that date back to before the internet. For generations, people have been communicating with each other using pictures, drawings, and songs. In recent times, a lot of us can remember getting the Oscar Meyer Weiner jingle stuck in our heads. We then go to the playground where we sing it to our friends, and they, in turn, start to sing it, sharing it with their friends. These catchy tunes, funny pictures, and silly gifs can spread like a virus, reaching millions of people worldwide. It’s the same today with internet memes.
In this article, we’ll go back a couple of decades to look at the oldest memes on the internet. We’ll see when these memes were made, by whom, how they gained popularity, and where you can find them.
What is a Meme?
The word meme has an interesting history. So, before we dig into the oldest memes, let’s look at the origin and definition of the word itself.
In 1976, Richard Dawkins, a British scientist, published his book, The Selfish Gene. In this book, he coined the term, “meme,” as being the same as “phoneme.” A phenome is the smallest unit of a sound of speech. Meme is also a shortened version of the Greek word, Mimema, meaning imitated. Dawkins wanted a one-syllable word that was similar to “gene.” Therefore, the term meme was born.
In our times, we regard a meme as an idea or behavior that spreads from person to person within a culture. They take on a life of their own as they self-replicate through our text and speech, either in person or online. For example, a trending meme today is Barbenheimer. Barbenheimer came about because the movies Barbie and Oppenheimer were released in theaters on the same day. And of course, the internet did what it does best — it made memes about it.
The 8 Oldest Memes on the Internet
#1: Dancing Baby Viral Video 1996
While it’s hard to pin down the very first meme on the internet, most people consider it to be the Dancing Baby. When most people think of the Dancing Baby, aka Baby Cha-Cha, they remember the 3D model appearing on the popular TV show, Ally McBeal. However, the baby was shared initially via chat rooms and email chains, grooving to Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling.
The origins of Dancing Baby include its inventors, Robert Luyre and Michael Girard, who created the short movie for the company AutoDesk. The artists intended the bouncing baby to show off the capabilities of the animation plug-in called Character Studio. But, it was when Ron Lussier, an employee at LucasArts, shared an updated version of the file with coworkers that the phenomenon took shape. Suddenly, the baby was shared by people worldwide, culminating in its TV appearance and eventually notable remakes such as Samurai Baby.
#2: All Your Base Are Belong to Us Meme 1998
In 1989, SEGA released their side-scrolling shooter, Zero Wing. During the opening sequence, players can see a hilariously poorly translated discussion in which the main character exclaims, “All your base are belong to us!”
The more accurate translation of the conversation would be something like, “All of your bases are under our control.” This makes much more sense to native English speakers. Still, we love the fond memories of this meme sprouting up online and entering into real life as a sort of inside joke. If you knew the reference, you got the joke.
While the internet meme was picking up steam, it appeared in various news outlets, from print to live broadcasting. And the meme had staying power. For example, in 2006, YouTube engineers are said to have used “ALL YOUR VIDEO ARE BELONG TO US” as a message while launching new features. Additionally, Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, launched a blog post regarding patents titled “All Our Patent Are Belong to You.”
All Your Base may also be the original meme that appeared as a photo with big, block text over it. But it’s hard to know if this was the meme that started the Engrish craze, which saw tons of hilariously translated text posted online. However, it’s undoubtedly the first, most well-known instance of it.
#3: The Hamster Dance Website 1998
While the original Hamster Dance website has shut its doors, the image of cartoon hamsters remains in many of our minds. The original song that the hamsters danced to appeared in Disney’s Robin Hood cartoon, but it’s the sped-up version of Roger Miller’s Whistle Stop that many people remember as the Hamster Dance Song.
In 1998, a then-art student, Deidre LaCarte, created the website as a sibling competition to see who could get the most web views. Apparently, the site was also an homage to her pet hamster, Hampton. Around 1999, after about a year of being shared through email, the website was discussed in an article published by the GettingIt webzine. After that, word spread, and in 1999, the site was getting hundreds of millions of views.
Since then, other commercials and blogs have remixed or at least mentioned the song and website. The famous dancing hamsters are now shared via mirrored and derivative sites and memes, forever ingrained into our popular culture.
#4: Pancake Bunny Meme 2001
Remember when no one knew what you were talking about, so they sent you a picture of a bunny with a pancake on its head? Yeah, that dismissive response is known as Pancake Bunny.
It all began when Hironori Akutagawa, the owner of Oolong, started posting pictures of his well-trained bunny balancing things on his head. His posts originally went unnoticed on his daily blog postings until someone posted a link to his blog’s page on a public forum called DVD Talk.
In September 2001, Syberpunk, a Japanese blog, created an English site featuring Oolong. By the time 2003 came around, Oolong was a hit, with bloggers often using it as a snide response to a nonsensical post. Generally, the meme was shared almost as an understood stand-in for the words “What you said made no sense, so here’s something else that makes no sense.”
Since then, the famous bunny has appeared on countless websites and forums and even spurred a one-person pancake art movement of sorts.
#5: One Does Not Simply Walk into Mordor Meme 2001
Originally a quote from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, this meme quickly made the rounds, with variants of the phrase often substituted for the words “walk” and Mordor.
For example, the original Boromir quote is, “One does not simply walk into Mordor.” Meme makers initially used a movie still featuring Boromir and big, blocky white letters. As the meme morphed, however, we saw many variations, such as “One does not simply cowbell into Mordor.”
Of course, in real life, we can remember substituting pretty much anything for “walk” and Mordor, coming up with somewhat annoying quips. For example, as kids, we may have said, “One does not simply do the dishes.” While this meme is still popular, it has become less so over the years.
#6: Peanut Butter Jelly Time Animation 2002
Initially a flash animation created by Kevin Flynn and Ryan Gancenia Etrata, screen names Comrade Flynn and RalphWiggum, Peanut Butter Jelly Time represents both the absurdity and obnoxiousness that can come from the internet.
The video and the gif feature a cartoon banana dancing (anyone seeing a dancing theme here?) to the song Peanut Butter Jelly Time by The Buckwheat Boyz. The song is perhaps one of the original internet earworms as it still lives in our heads today, making it hard not to think of it whenever someone mentions the delicious sandwich.
By the end of 2002, you could see the meme everywhere, even in sitcoms. It gained traction when Family Guy featured Brian in a banana suit singing and dancing. However, like the Mordor meme, this one has become but a fond memory for most of us.
#7: Fail and Epic Fail Meme 2003
In the early 2000s, a slang term took the internet by storm. The documented verb “fail” as a meme can trace its roots back to a Japanese game, Blazing Star. In the game, players see a poorly translated message, “YOU FAIL IT!” The message appears when the player character dies in the game. Of course, grammar nerds and bandwagoners alike mocked this term relentlessly. Eventually, shortening the meme to just “Fail.”
In 2003, Urban Dictionary added Fail to their terms and defined it as “either an interjection used when one disapproves of something or a verb meaning approximately the same thing as the slang form of suck.” After that, we can see the verb appearing in big block letters over funny images and gaining popularity. 2008 saw the launch of FAILblog, an entire site dedicated to people’s silliness.
Today, we still see Fail and Epic Fail memes. They’ve also inspired some spin-offs. Similar to the Fail memes are the hilarious “You Had One Job” and “Seems/Sounds Legit.”
#8: LOLCats and Caturday Memes
It’s no secret that the internet loves cats. LOLCats is an internet meme consisting of funny pictures of cats with internet slang such as “I cannot brain today, I haz the dumb” or simply, “LOLZ.” LOLCats appear to originate from 4chan when an anonymous user posted a picture of a cat with a caption about waiting for Caturday. Caturday and LOLCats were both created in 2006, becoming side-by-side internet favorites.
2006 also saw the launch of LOLcats.com, featuring funny furry felines and broken and almost nonsensical sayings. In 2007, Time Magazine even published a feature on the cat meme’s popularity. Since then, we’ve seen such iterations as Happy Cat, Limecat, Ceiling Cat, Basement Cat, Business Cat, Nyan Cat, and our personal favorite, Monorail Cat.
The cat popularity phenomenon continues today, and we hope cat memes are one thing that never disappears from “teh interwebz.”
Internet Memes Today
Today, memes are as synonymous with the internet. We still use them as responses in comments and forum threads. And we’re still making memes whenever something happens in our culture. For example, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock.
If you’re ever without the internet but don’t want to be without your memes, you can check out this game called What Do You Meme to get your funny fix.
- For kids and adults
- The hilarious game you know and love, now with all the R-rated content removed for family-friendly fun
- Ages 8+
- Compete with your friends and family to create the funniest memes. Do this by using one of your dealt caption cards to caption (get it?) the photo card in each round
- Each game contains 300 caption cards and 65 photo cards and instructions
|#1||Dancing Baby Viral Video||1996|
|#2||All Your Base Are Belong to Us||1998|
|#3||The Hamster Dance Website||1998|
|#5||One Does Not Simply Walk into Mordor||2001|
|#6||Peanut Butter Jelly Time Animation||2002|
|#7||Fail and Epic Fail||2003|
|#8||LOLCats and Caturday Memes||2006|
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Master1305/Shutterstock.com.