As a professional voice-over artist, I’ve spent the last couple of decades staying on top of trends and deciphering changes in the media. Whenever a new format, or meta (for lack of a better word), emerges in the voiceover industry, rolling with the changes and incorporating them into my craft has always been a hard-earned skill of necessity. But what exactly constitutes a significant change? Is it the industry itself? The mediums by which we render our craft – or are they the places they’re used? Such as memes and voiceover.
When we think of memes and how we use them to communicate with one another, figuring out where voiceover fits in might seem like a bit of a stretch – but the voiceover is quickly becoming the next stage in the ongoing evolution of memes.
How Do Memes and Voiceover Fit Together?
How do memes and voiceover fit together? They explain complex things in a simplified, digestible way, adding a secondary interpretation to a piece of media, conveying a deeper meaning and developed sense of context. Like voiceover, memes hold a central theme or message in place.
Memes are a unifier; they bring us closer together, no matter our differences. But to understand the real significance of what memes mean to us as a species, we need to take a step back and return to a time before social media – an era long before Youtube, email, and the internet. Let’s go back to 1976.
Origin of the Meme
The year is 1976, a time of innovation and discovery; the Viking 1 touches down on Martian soil, and Steve Jobs reveals the very first Apple Computer to the world. Meanwhile, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins pens his international bestseller, The Selfish Gene, and officially coins the term meme.
Little did he know that less than 20 years later, the word would have a new meaning altogether. Ok, well, not entirely – let’s call it an evolution or metamorphosis. In its original definition, a meme is a sociological virus, an idea that spreads from person to person within a culture and impacts our evolutionary process. The difference between the Dawkins meme and the internet meme is that one is a natural process, and the other is a manufactured spin on a trend.
A Brief History of the Internet Meme
When Dawkins coined the term, he used it to describe how we imitate each other’s behavior and how it intermingles with our development. Unlike that, internet memes spread from person to person – instead of them impacting us, we impact them. We pass them along from mind to mind, recirculate the ones that resonate with us, and build them up to pop culture status.
We transmit them to each other with slight variations related to a specific situation with others in a niche community that might resonate. The most interesting thing about memes is that they don’t discriminate – they fracture into relatable scenarios that trickle down and cater to every demographic you could think of. That’s why it’s called going viral – a meme spreads from person to person within a culture, no matter which version we’re talking about, just like a virus.
The First Internet Meme
Memes existed long before the grumpy cat or anxious girlfriends became a thing. Today, people are still trying to track down the first meme. In all fairness, it’s a steep rabbit hole to fall down, but it’s well worth the trip. Without going into too much unnecessary detail (because this post IS about more than the history of the meme), most people can track the first internet meme back to a dancing CGI baby in 1996.
That’s all it was – a dancing CGI baby, but people loved it. The meme became so popular, in fact, that it stood as a symbol of the internet itself and became synonymous with online culture. It’s far from the first meme, though.
The First Published Meme
While the BBC reported that the first published memes might have come around as early as the 1920s, the current leading theory is that memes evolved alongside us. It might sound like the plot of an episode of South Park, but memes are as old as human civilization and have been around as long as we’ve had the means to keep records.
As our means of communication advance, so do the communications themselves. The memes of ten years ago are a far cry from the memes of our ancient ancestors. While the first PG memes can be traced back to Roman times, it’s been suggested that the first memes were crude phallic shapes carved into cave walls. But as we grew into a more sophisticated species, with more sophisticated methods of communication, our memes took on shapes reflective of precisely that.
Memes Are Social Media
Fast forward to 2009, and our meme format has become static images with minorly altered text. Simple, clean, and to the point, this iteration of the meme was typically shared over Facebook and websites like Imgur or Tumblr. Keeping with tradition, they reflected both the technology of the time and the people who used it.
Skip forward another ten years, and platforms like TikTok are dominating the social media world. If you’ve never used TikTok, this is the skinny. It’s all about short-form user-generated videos paired with audio from the app. While initially designed to sync up dance moves with the music, it quickly evolved into something else. Before long, cute dance videos were replaced by funny clips set to audio tracks other users created.
Enter TikTok: The Evolution of Memes and Voiceover
As things tend to happen over the Internet, this new hybrid content concoction exploded overnight. While some were parodies of famous songs contrasted against a relatable situation, others were quick how-to videos or time-lapses with narrations that explained what was going on. These narrations would soon go viral and become used by content creators from every niche and demographic. Soon, the only thing that changed was the image itself, not the words. Narrations and voiceovers had become the new meme. While this might not seem culturally significant, it’s a huge deal.
Voiceover Replaced the Meme Format of the Last 2000 Years
For the entirety of recorded history, what we might have considered a meme has always been a still image. Eventually, someone added text, and in the last two decades, at their most advanced, a gif. But somehow, in the last three years alone, voiceover’s added element (and increased accessibility) managed to flip the established meme format of the last 2000 recorded years on its head. Instead of images that stay the same, now it’s audio. Audio is added to contextually appropriate and sometimes inappropriate videos that people can relate to. Soon, Instagram, Youtube, and every other would-be social media platform found themselves in a desperate scramble to emulate the massive success experienced by TikTok.
But credit needs to be given where it’s due – through the power of voiceover, a social construct that withstood the last 2000 years of human civilization, and then some stands irrevocably changed. And from the perspective of a voiceover artist, that’s just downright incredible. Memes are about the meaning we ascribe to them – but they’re also about the meanings we give each other.