What's in a meme? A brief history of what Salon thinks memes are

Parsing 25 years of Salon stories gives insight into the evolution of memes — and of internet culture at large

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published March 8, 2020 10:00AM (EDT)

A collage of memes: Distracted Boyfriend, Gene Wilder, Philosophy Dinosaur, and Clenched Fist (Salon/KnowYourMeme)
A collage of memes: Distracted Boyfriend, Gene Wilder, Philosophy Dinosaur, and Clenched Fist (Salon/KnowYourMeme)

Editor’s note: Salon celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Since being founded in 1995 (under the much-worse domain salon1999.com), Salon has published over 300,000 articles; as one of the first online magazines, its history and the history of the internet are inextricable. In honor of Salon's quarter-century, we are publishing a series of stories reflecting on the magazine’s remarkable history, which encompasses a small piece of the larger story of media and culture.

It wasn't long ago that the word "meme" was something you wouldn't utter in polite company — not because it was rude, but because no one knew it meant. The word was consigned to teenage boys and the terminally online set. My parents certainly know what the word means now (I asked them); but back in 1998, when the internet was still for dorks, I would have felt like an idiot trying to explain it to them. For better or worse, no one today associates using the internet with escaping from reality. It is reality. (Or so we think.)

Though it was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976's "The Selfish Gene," the word "meme" was little-known until the 1990s, when it made a resurgence among two specific groups with very little in common: academics, who deemed "memetics" a new field with its concomitant Usenet newsgroups and digital journals; and the unwashed online masses who huddled in the darker corners of the internet, places like Rotten.com, Newgrounds, and Japanese message board 2channel (the basis for 4chan, which wasn't founded until 2003). Early internet memes were still images — usually an image macro and assorted variations — and generally tended towards the puerile (or even the unprintable).

Because Salon has been around since the dawn of the internet as we know it, internet culture was always innate to editorial coverage — which means that Salon readers were very early to the meme train. In fact, the first appearance of the word "meme" in the pages of Salon did not even define the word to readers — it assumed they already knew what it was. That story, titled "'Ate My Balls' ate my balls," concerned the eponymous obscurantist meme. As writer Milo Miles explains:

Everyone agrees that this [Ate My Balls] meme/craze/phenomenon began with the Mr. T Ate My Balls page, which was intended by its creator, Nehan Patel, as no more than a mental giggle made manifest cybernetically. Balls began bouncing in the spring of 1996 when some rowdies knocked the glass out of the EXIT sign on Patel's dorm floor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They scratched the paint off the sign, wrote "Mr. T Ate My Balls" on it and replaced it.

One snicker led to another, and soon photos and literal cartoons of the cartoonish Mr. T were declaring his insistent passion for male gonads on a Web page. Tasteless? Sure. But I pity the fool who considers it more offensive than dadaist.

Just about every link in this 1997 article is dead, though thanks to the Internet Archive, you can see what Nehan Patel's original website looks like here. Be warned: design-wise, it is the consummate Web 1.0 site.

As Miles explains, creating a viral meme in 1997 meant something different than it does today. Social media are the primary proliferators of memes now; but obviously, that did not exist back then. The way to create and share memes was with webrings.

Ah yes, webrings. That's a word most of us haven't heard in an extremely long time. You see, the modern internet is organized in a way that the old internet wasn't; most of our traffic is consolidated to a few huge sites, some of which act directly as aggregators and curators — e.g. Reddit — and some of which act indirectly as aggregators and curators — e.g. Facebook, or a news site like Salon that hyperlinks to other websites and pages. 

The defining feature of Web 1.0 was its lack of curation and aggregation. It was hard to navigate; that's why search engines were invented, and why search engine home pages were originally quite complex and layered navigational consoles. Indeed, for legacy reasons, it seems some still are, like Yahoo!. Organization on the early web was so obscure and difficult that there was a series of books published well into the late 1990s called "The Internet Yellow Pages", which contained hundreds of pages of hyperlinks and website suggestions that you would have to copy out and manually type in.

Webrings were merely another way to aid in aggregation and curation of similar sites. Those who were part of a webring for, say, "Lord of the Rings," would copy and paste the same HTML code at the bottom of their page, which would read something like "Part of the LOTR webring," accompanied by a forward and a back arrow. Clicking either would navigate you to another site that was part of that webring; pressing the same button long enough and you would end up back where you started — hence, the "ring" shape.

But back to "Mr. T Ate My Balls." How did Milo Miles know that "Mr. T Ate My Balls" was a proper meme, and was going viral and all, if there were no social media metrics to gauge it? You guessed it: there was an Ate My Balls webring, with numerous sites linking to each other featuring poorly Photoshopped — er, MS Painted — text superimposed on assorted characters saying the "Ate My Balls" phrase: Princess Diana, Ric Flair, and Chewbacca among them.

Aside from the tools of its creation being primitive, "Mr. T Ate My Balls" resembles a modern internet meme for the most part. Yet curiously, its appearance in Salon, and the way that "meme" was defined back then in 1997, was an anomaly for the magazine.

Indeed, there's an absence of the word "meme" in the pages of Salon for another few years, curiously. After a brief, lurid reference that I don't understand in a sex article from 1999, the word finally appears again in a 2000 story about the "Al Gore invented the internet" meme. That phrase, purportedly uttered by Gore and taken out of context, is a thoroughly different use of the word "meme": in this sense, it means a phrase that became embedded into our idea of Gore's persona, and mutated into other phrases with similar phonetic structures. It is still true today, inasmuch as the idea of Gore saying that has infected popular consciousness and informs our ideas of the former vice president. When you type "Al Gore" into Google, the fourth auto-fill suggestion is "al gore internet," and the sixth is "al gore invented the internet".

The word starts appearing in print far more frequently starting in 2001. A Judith Greer story from June 15, 2001, about the then-new film "Pearl Harbor," employs the word "meme" as synonymous with "hegemonic idea" or "normalized idea." Greer's story is about how the movie normalizes the conspiracy theory that President Roosevelt somehow knew that the Pearl Harbor attacks were coming (he didn't).

"Conservative hostility to FDR's New Deal continues to the present day, and has over time succeeded in slipping the meme of Roosevelt's political depravity in under the radar of our national consciousness, sabotaging our ability to apply logic to the situation," Greer writes. She calls this the "FDR knew" meme. Unlike "Ate My Balls," "FDR Knew" is not a flat image, nor an endlessly-renewed image macro. Rather, it's an idea that has inserted itself into consciousness, and which will not die — despite, in this case, being as patently untrue as the BernieBro or the Welfare Queen. 

You can see, in the pages of Salon, this subtle editorial struggle over what "meme" means. Is it more like Dawkins' original definition, of an infectious idea that was normalized and became hegemonic? Or is it a global inside joke, oft-puerile, consisting in a repeated phraseology, image or GIF, which anonymous hordes seize upon and spread as a means of sharing a sentiment and a laugh?

At the core, there is at least some conceptual similarities between the two definitions — let us call them the Dawkins-meme and the internet-meme. Both become infectious in a sense, in that become embedded in the way we communicate; though one is a sort of riffed-on, eminently shareable visual, while the other is just a general idea that a lot of people accept. As an Gramscian scholar in graduate school, I see a lot of crossover between the Dawkins-meme and the way that Antonio Gramsci defined hegemony: when an ideology becomes so completely normalized that you cannot fathom an alternative system existing. In his definition, capitalism and its concomitant system of control and culture were the epitome of hegemony, as they were like water to a fish — so normalized that none could imagine a world without them — though such a world was obviously possible (and had existed in the past). (Which raises the question: is our economic system merely a meme ne plus ultra?)

In any case, a mid-aughts Salon story actually addressed the navel-gazing quality of the word "meme," which arises if you think too hard about it. This was in a Steve Paulson essay, "God and gorillas," about the anthropological history of religion. "Take Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who has proposed that religion is a meme — an idea that evolved like a virus — that infected our ancestors and continued to spread throughout cultures," Paulson writes. Dennett's idea, of religion as a meme, is very reminiscent of the plot of Neal Stephenson's 1992 cyberpunk novel "Snow Crash."

The next four years of Salon would see editors duking out these questions over what "meme" means. In 2001, 2002 and 2003, 2004 further articles — one about a mysterious performance artist, one about Osama Bin Laden published 2 months after 9/11, and two about Howard Dean — employed Dawkins' definition.

For the first time, in 2003, Salon defined what the word meant — or what the writer's editor thought it did. This was in a profile of Adbusters magazine founder Kalle Lasn, one of the premier counterculture figures of that era. Recall that the magazine's aesthetic was one of subverting marketing and advertising tropes: in Adbusters, articles were scant, sometimes sandwiched between inscrutable faux-ads mocking consumerism. Because of the magazine's hyper-sensitivity to modern advertising trends, it was the kind of place whose editors would definitely know what a meme was. As Linda Baker writes (emphasis mine):

The author of "Culture Jam: How to Reverse America's Suicidal Binge," Kalle Lasn is one of the leading figures in the "culture jamming" movement, an international grassroots effort that uses the logic of commercial images to critique corporate hegemony and rampant consumerism. Under his leadership, Adbusters' preferred method of culture jamming has been to publish ad parodies, such as "Absolute Impotence," a photo of the familiar bottle drifting in spilled vodka, or a Nike satire that morphs Tiger Woods' smile into a Swoosh.

Last month, Adbusters announced a new phase in state-of-the-art meme warfare. ("Memes" refer to the core images, slogans or ideas that culture jammers manipulate: e.g., a swoosh, or "Just Do It.") Although the campaign's targets, Nike and CEO Phil Knight, appear frequently in the magazine's culture jams, the latest strategy moves Adbusters out of the realm of parody and into the competitive world of global marketing and production.

This definition of "meme" seems to fall halfway between the other two. A "core image, slogan or idea" could constitute a modern internet meme, like Anti-Vax Mom — who is herself both an image and an idea. Or it could also define the memorable "Al Gore invented the internet" phrase, which doesn't have an accompanying visual stock photo or template like the distracted boyfriend meme or the "Is this a pigeon?" guy. 

These aforementioned nine articles mark all appearances of the word "meme" in the first ten years of Salon, throughout which around 100,000 articles were published. By the time the 2010s rolled around, "meme" — to Salon's editors — meant, specifically, internet memes. The Dawkins-meme use of the word dissipated.

Before we get into how Salon's coverage shifted, it's important to note here that the 2010s were a weird time to work in online media. The business model shifted rapidly and constantly: With the rise of social media, it was no longer a given that readers would find your stories by going directly to your site's homepage; or perhaps via, uh, webrings, since those stopped existing. Rather, they might see your news site's story on a social media scroll or on Google News. More likely, though, they would see your news site's story alongside twenty other outlets covering the same story. Which to click? Probably the one whose headline promised to be the most titillating, weird or intriguing. Thus, social media inadvertently birthed two much-hated journalism trends: clickbait, and the listicle (short for list-article)

That's why I love this 2011 Salon story, "5 Internet memes that could kill you." I think before the word "clickbait" was reified, writing headlines like this was just standard practice: you want to put in a "curiosity gap", as they're called, meaning that there is a tiny lack of information that intrigues the reader, and (theoretically) inspires them to click. Likewise, in the era of ever-refreshing social media newsfeeds, the fastest outlets often win the most clicks — and thus there is intense competition to come up with fresh article ideas that can also be pumped out quickly.

Enter the listicle. I do not know who edited this "5 Internet memes that could kill you" story, but I can imagine their thought process: here's a topic that the kids are talking about (memes!) that can be topped with a headline that piques the curiosity gap ("could kill me? what?" ) and that promises the reader will leave having gained some information or knowledge, an irresistible premise for many surfers.

* * *

Words — like memes — are fluid. They can be redefined, reshaped, politically transmuted. Who would have thought that "edgy" would become synecdoche for "reactionary edgelord," or that a comic of a green frog-man with odd bathroom habits would become a symbol of a nascent ur-fascism?

The early years of Salon, 1995 through 2001, are intriguing to me inasmuch as not a lot of people were on the internet — and those that were skewed towards nerdy upper-middle class types, the professional-managerial and techied class, as it were. Appropriately, the magazine's coverage skewed towards that demographic. It is hard to imagine, but "going on the internet" was once a punchline, an obscure hobby that required sitting down in front of a 14-inch thick cathode ray tube and listening to modem sounds. (So obscure was the idea of the internet in 1997 that Denis Leary could make a joke punctuated with the phrase "double-U double-U double-U what-the-fuck-dot-com!" and receive raucous laughter in response.)

As the idea of the meme evolved, the people making them changed, too. Memes are certainly no longer the realm of college students with too much time on their hands, as "Ate My Balls" was. Adults, even grandparents are familiar with the art; politicians earnestly hope to create moments that will make them into a meme, or at least go viral. Warren's "I have a plan for that" and various images of Bernie Sanders' reactions have both entered the realm of memedom, as has Ron Paul ("It's happening!") and assorted images of Trump looking skeptical or signing things. This is a word that children know, even if they can't define it; and which seniors know, even if they can't emulate it.

The real turning point for the word – the point at which it solidified into its modern usage — came in tandem with the rise of social media. I do not think that is a coincidence. Social media has effectively shrunk the world, changed the ways that we communicate — changed how we perceive our community and our body politic. That kind of power, the power to redefine communication itself, is stunning. And the rise of internet memes attests to the ways in which the scions of Silicon Valley are absolutely clueless about their overwhelming power to remake culture. Yes, social media inadvertently gave us the joy of memes — but it also gave us clickbait, surveillance capitalism, low self esteem, depression, and new means of manipulation for states, corporations and bad actors alike. Memelords can take solace, however, in that memes are not dependent on these negative externalities — we can live in a meme-filled paradise without them.

By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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