Oh, woe is meme. Or, not. Actually, most of what we now think of as memes are funny or thought-provoking. Many people believe the word “meme” refers exclusively to those videos of dancing Mitt Romney style and talking dogs deprived of meat, pictures of Grumpy Cat, motivational sayings, or statements in support of every possible cause. But, the meme wasn’t always what it is today, and it doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone. I have become a big fan of memes and tend to re-post quite a few on my Facebook page. There’s so many, they have to raise their hands and shout, “Meme! Meme! Pick Meme!”, to get my attention. (Okay, sorry for that one.)
But, what is a meme, really? What does the word “meme”, mean? Where did it come from? Do you know?
If not, maybe you’ll feel more informed after reading this post. Meme is pronounced as “meem”, and is defined as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) This term was coined by a British man, Richard Dawkins, in his book “The Selfish Gene”, published in 1976. Mr. Dawkins was an Evolutionary Biologist, so this term related to his area of study and was used mainly by academics. Originally, it was not really heard of outside that circle.
Dawkins hoped to bring Darwin’s theory of evolution and survival of the fittess into the modern genetic world by breaking it down into the smallest form that reproduces. The gene. Besides this biological component of evolution, he believed there was a cultural component that also changed and evolved through time and exposure. In his book, he talked about it as, “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.” The Greek word mimeme refers to imitation or mimicry.
In Dawkins’ mind, a meme would be identified as one particular cultural item, such as the passing on of a certain catch-phrase or melody, which would change slightly as it moved between people. Did you ever play that old game called “Telephone”? It’s an old fashioned kids party game. Children form a line, and the first child whispers a phrase into the next child’s ear. This continues down the line until the last player recites the phrase out loud. The results are usually very twisted compared to the starting phrase and can be hilarious. This is a simplified view, but gets the idea across of how a cultural unit can change and develop as it is transmitted through time.
So, while Dawkins created this serious concept to promote his view of evolution, he had little idea that his “meme” would evolve into its current context. In fact, he argued that society’s usage of the term is the result of a misunderstanding of his original proposal. A meme had potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution. It was not subject to the same rules of fitness selection that genes are. A successful meme is copied from one brain to another, perhaps billions of times over thousands of years.
In 1996, the phrase “going viral” developed, and soon became synonymous with Internet memes and how they spread. Although a handful of specific memes existed back then, it wasn’t really until we got into the 2000‘s, that the organized and prolific Internet memes we know and love now became a mainstream phenomena. Think of “I F***ing Love Science, George Takei, Doctor Who and the T.A.R.D.I.S., and ThinkGeek, not to mention the ever popular I Can Haz Cheezburger. There are so many more, I could never begin to list them all.
Malcolm Gladwell, of the New Yorker, wrote, “A meme is an idea that behaves like a virus–that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects.” Imitation is an important characteristic in the propagation of memes. So, a YouTube video or a funny picture that spreads across the Internet while mutating through numerous re-mixes and sub-versions is a perfect illustration of this. Perhaps Dawkins would view this as a successful interpretation of his meme, after all.
These Internet memes spread rapidly through email, instant messages, blogs, social networking sites like Facebook, websites, and video hosts like YouTube. They are presented as a picture or video, a hyperlink or hashtag, an image, a quote, phrase, or simply one word. Sometimes the words may be purposely misspelled to add humor or make a point. Because these memes are transferred almost instantaneously, new fads quickly take hold, and sometimes fade just as quickly. Some reach world-wide popularity within a few short days and create a widespread social response.
The way memes behave has caught the attention of both researchers and marketers. Researchers try to learn about social behavior by creating models to predict how a meme evolves, and which of them will survive to spread across the Internet. Marketers have noticed the rapid growth and transmittal of memes and are using them as a tool for a mass marketing technique to create a buzz for their product. Dominic Basulto, in 2013, wrote a Washington Post article that claimed with the growth of the Internet and the practices of the marketing and advertising industries, memes have evolved, not to transmit the important snippets of human culture that could survive for centuries as originally envisioned by Dawson, but instead transmit banality at the expense of big ideas.
Perhaps so. Also in 2013, Dawkins characterized an Internet meme as being a meme deliberately altered by human creativity—distinguished from biological genes and Dawkins’ pre-Internet concept of a meme, which involved mutation by random change and spreading through accurate replication as in Darwinian selection. Dawkins explained that Internet memes are thus a “hijacking of the original idea,” the very idea of a meme having mutated and evolved in this new direction.
Let’s end with an example of memetic marketing. The old “Nope, Chuck Testa” meme from an advertisement for taxidermist Chuck Testa. This one continues to live on in my home whenever my sons see a mounted animal in any television show, movie, or commercial. As the show gives taxidermy credit to the fictional character, they always call out, “Nope, Chuck Testa”! Apparently, the new memes work fine in their varied capacities
Do you like the way memes have evolved? Or, do you feel they’ve hijacked a term that was meant for greater things? What’s your favorite meme? I have so many, but I think “Epic Cat Jump Fail – Sail Version” is priceless.
Linda Williams Stirling
- Richard Dawkins appears in psychedelic show celebrating internet memes (wired.co.uk)
- Have Internet memes lost their meaning? (washingtonpost.com)
- Meme Marketing Explained – Pros, Cons & Leverage (socialmetricspro.com)