It was evolutionary biologist (and real love-him-or-hate-him guy) Richard Dawkins who coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He wrote that in the same way that a gene is a self-replicating unit of biological evolution, a meme is a self-replicating unit of cultural evolution. That is to say, it’s an idea that spreads and changes the more it spreads. And, not to get too meta, just look at how the idea of a meme (itself a meme) has changed. Nowadays, when the average person says the word, they mean a funny image someone shared online.
And they’re partly right.
Funny online memes are like digital genes, carrying information from person to person, being altered and progressed as they go. Except instead of carrying the blueprints for life, they carry doges, Shreks, and Sean Beans. Sometimes, memes—be they pictures, hashtags, challenges, or not digital at all—have had a huge cultural impact. Here are ten such memes, those that were so dank they changed history.
10 Pooh Bear
The meme—in this case, really any image of Pooh Bear—is heavily censored in China. The country even went so far as to ban the release of the film “Christopher Robin” within its borders just to prevent showing any image of the cuddly ol’ bear. And why? It all dates back to 2013 when President Xi Jinping visited the U.S. and some memers compared him and President Barack Obama to Pooh Bear and Tigger.
Xi was not a fan and considered being memed an affront to the dignity of himself and his office. He is particularly touchy as, in part, his goal to be the figurehead of both a cult of personality and an authoritarian regime. This has made the meme—again, just any image of one simple cartoon bear—into both a symbol of Chinese governmental corruption and protest.
9 ALS Ice Buckets
In 2014, a challenge trend emerged online, organically and gradually growing from a series of unrelated charitable ‘cold-water challenges’ to a massive worldwide meme dedicated to raising money for ALS (also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Raise money they did: over $220 million in 2014 alone.
And the trend—which operates by one poster challenging another to post as well—has made multiple resurgences in the years since. Though none have attained 2014 levels of success, they have generated more and more revenue for ALS-related charities and organizations. The meme has shown an incredible ability to produce grassroots funding and demonstrates the potential memes have to change finance going forward.
Nowadays, even the scientifically illiterate understand that radiation can be dangerous. But in the first half of the complicated 20th century, newly-discovered radioactive elements like radium were thought to be safe. More than that, they were all the rage.
Radium in particular was used in every product imaginable, from makeup to clocks to clothes to medicine. Between being considered a cure-all and its fun self-luminous quality, radium became the catchword of quality in its day. You can find the word on/in all sorts of product labels, commercials, posters, and signs. It was a viral buzzword that brought the dangers of radioactivity worldwide fame.
7 Memento Mori
It is impossible to pick the single most influential and widespread meme today, but in the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the winner is clear: the memento mori. Memento mori, meaning ‘remember that you will die,’ is a motif that appeared in a huge amount of paintings over hundreds of years (and is still in use today).
The gist of the meme is simple: include some object in your work to remind the audience that death is inevitable. This was most often either some timekeeping device set to a penultimate time, some living thing clearly on its way out, or simply a skull.
Even limiting the meme to just skulls, you can easily find hundreds of examples from paintings. Some are hidden—perhaps a small skull on a shelf whose contents are otherwise normal—and some are the central focus, as in Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” It’s safe to say that no Renaissance nobles ever forgot that death was drawing nearer.
Before the internet, perhaps the single most common way to spread visual memes was graffiti. With obvious placement on or around high-traffic and high-visibility areas, many graffiti phrases spread from creator to viewer to creator, just as online memes do today.
A notable example is the phrase ‘Frodo Lives!’, which was spray-painted across the world in the ’60s and ’70s as a slogan for the hippie movement, green movement, and Vietnam protests. Another is ‘Clapton is God,’ referencing musician Eric Clapton, which went up across the U.K. and U.S. during the guitarist’s tenure with the band Cream. Another still would be the ‘Kilroy was Here’ drawings that soldiers spread across the world during World War II, bringing a connectedness and levity to soldiers’ bleak tours in combat.
5 Tide Pod Challenge
Like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’s idiotic, malicious twin, the Tide Pod Challenge arose to show us the power that memes have to effect change. Only this time, the change is stupid and harmful. In 2018, videos began to be posted online in which people—usually teens and 20-somethings—ate Tide Pods. Ate them. They ate Tide Pods.
Tide Pods, compact packets of laundry detergent, are colorful and bite-sized and became increasingly compared to candy. They are, however, incredibly unsafe to eat and the challenge, as well as the flurry of memes surrounding it, led to a spike in injuries from Tide Pod ingestion and even a few deaths. YouTube has since banned the videos, though the phenomenon is undoubtedly not the last meme-generated epidemic of stupidity.
4 Alfred E. Neuman
Mad Magazine is a comedic institution, influencing and even defining satire for generations. The bucktoothed, big-eared mascot that so frequently graces its cover actually has a name: Alfred E. Neuman, and the character has a long and winding history.
In short, the image’s creation is still unknown, but it quickly spread to become a catchall mascot for turn-of-the-20th-century advertisers, being used to sell food, appliances, and services. Its other prominent use was in racist propaganda. Pamphlets and posters from the time show the character, with his exaggerated features, smiling dumbly alongside slogans like, “Irish Need Not Apply” and “Kill the Jews.” As Mad Magazine (before that a comic) gained popularity, they gradually gained control over the character and now his catchphrase has become the much-less inflammatory, “What, me worry?”
3 Trump Wrestles CNN
In 2017, Donald Trump tweeted a short meme video edited to look like he was beating up a personification of news network CNN outside a wrestling ring. It ends with the CNN logo being replaced with one that says “FNN: Fraud News Network.” The clip stirred up a great deal of concern and anger and changed the way memes are perceived in politics for a number of reasons.
For one, it is unprecedented for a sitting leader of a first-world nation to spend so much of his day paying attention to memes. For another, the meme was created by a Reddit user with a long history of racist and anti-semitic posts. For another still, newly-positioned leaders attacking the integrity of the free press has historically been a common tactic of authoritarians. Trump’s oft-repeated ‘fake news’ slogan has drawn many comparisons to Hitler’s ‘lying press’ slogan.
Both Trump and the clip’s creator apologized for posting the video.
2 Pepe the Frog
The story of Pepe the Frog is a tragedy. The meme began as innocently as possible. Pepe was a character in the online comic Boy’s Club, where the frog mostly just hung out, smoked weed, and joked about silly nonsense. He then became a meme, his face used as a blank canvas to convey a million different ideas and emotions. And then…
We lost him. From 2015-2017, there was a snowball effect, centered at first around Donald Trump and then later around 4chan culture, which took Pepe from the “feels good man” frog to a central symbol used by the alt-right. He has become enmeshed with hate speech, Nazism, and even the 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol. Pepe’s creator, Matt Furie, has been very outspoken about his dislike of Pepe’s cooption and has sued multiple parties and organizations who have profited from using Pepe as a symbol of extremism and hate.
Unlike Pepe, the doge meme began as pure as fresh snow and has remained that way ever since. Doge is easily one of the most popular memes of the internet age and has taken on countless variations over its lifetime. It has appeared in ad campaigns, video games, phone apps, and every corner of the internet. The doge was most famously used as the name and symbol of one of the largest cryptocurrencies, Dogecoin.
Dogecoin is currently valued hundreds of times beyond its initial price, and thanks to repeated endorsements from personalities like Elon Musk, is becoming almost as renowned as Bitcoin. Doge has done more for Dogecoin than lend its face, however. The doge embodies the philosophy of the currency’s creators, who wished to create a fun, relaxed cryptocurrency with an equally fun, relaxed community. Serving as the inspiration for a major currency system, the doge meme proves the potential of memes to effect sweeping change on previously stagnant systems.