What is a meme?

Memes are like genes. While genes float through the biological soup carrying little croutons of evolutionary information, memes do the same within the soup of culture.

Like genes, memes replicate and spread between organisms (in this case humans), mutating and evolving along the way.

And they do this rapidly. These days memes are passed almost instantaneously from user to user via the Internet, and when social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are factored in, memes have the potential to spread virally within hours or even minutes.

Memes are the new genes

It’s no coincidence that memes are so similar to genes.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term all the way back in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene. He was one of the first to propose that the spread of culture could be explained by biological concepts. Dawkins reasoned that if the gene, or the DNA molecule, was the “replicating entity” that prevails throughout our planet, surely others must exist elsewhere in the universe.

mimeme [míːmɛːma]
noun. (from Ancient Greek μίμημα)
“something imitated”

But in his search for other replicators Dawkins realised that the answer was in fact very close to home. He proposed that there is another system – culture – that is constantly evolving at a rate far greater than that of evolution in biology.

And so, if genes were the “replicators” of biological evolution, there must be an equivalent in cultural evolution. Dawkins shortened the ancient Greek word mimeme meaning “something imitated” to sound more like its biological counterpart. And thus the concept of the meme was born.

Memes Today

Memes have come a long way since their biological origins in 1976. People weren’t even on the Internet back then! It would be another 20 years before the World Wide Web came to the fore as a widespread mode of communication between people.

Nowadays memes are more well-known for being those witty media that circulate around places like Facebook, Reddit and Tumblr. We’ve all seen the images (think Boromir – “One does not simply…”), videos (never gonna gi-…), catchphrases (#YOLO) and even general ideas that aren’t attached to any piece of media in particular, like trolls.

Viral vs. Meme

There’s more to a meme than meets the eye. Not everything that spreads virally on the Internet are memes. Like genes, what characterises them is the way they replicate, spread, combine and mutate – it’s all about change.

Create - Spread - Mutate

The difference arises most commonly with videos. Limor Shifman, in her article “An Anatomy of a YouTube Meme”, says that while videos like Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition were viral, it wasn’t a meme. A viral video is something that “spreads to the masses via digital word-of-mouth mechanisms without significant change“. Memes, on the other hand, “lure extensive user engagement in the form of parody, pastiche [and] mash-ups.”

We are in the age of the remix. Nothing is completely new and imitation has become the key to creation in our always-on and always-sharing society.

Memes are the new genes, and it’s the survival of the fittest in the troll-eat-troll world that is the Internet.


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