The Meme

The meme is a very controversial and debated concept. Many use it daily; many have something to say about it; but few people actually know what the word meme–a “meme” in itself–is actually about. Some background, in the form of an etymological exercise, is necessary.

The word meme comes from the greek mimeisthai, which means “to imitate”. “Meme” has gone through several changes over the centuries; but it was during the mid seventies (of the twentieth century) that the word grabbed attention from the mainstream–mainly through a book, now considered a classic, by biologist Richard Dawkins:

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. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. [Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene,” 1976]

Language, which is a very important–if not the most important–part of culture, is a very biological phenomenon; it grows, mutates, changes, disseminates, replicates, responds to environmental stess, etc. So, it should not be surprising at all that a biologist had something to say about culture.

While a geneticist talks about a gene in regards to the DNA molecule (as single unit of biological information), a modern anthropologist may refer to meme as the unit of cultural information. Basically, every word uttered is a meme of sorts. They are repeated, preserved, developed, discarded, trendy, etc.; and in this process, languages are made.

When trying to make sense of what ‘meme’ entails, its current use–which is not necessarily what Richard Dawkins intended–has to be put into the context of the web. Nowadays, ‘meme’ cannot be thought of without talking about grumpy cats, meme generators, etc. They are bits and pieces of cultural information that jump from Facebook wall to Facebook wall; from Twitter feed to Twitter feed; ideas that are funny and, more often than not, poignant. They are transmitted. And if there is a tool that best serves this quality (transmission), that tool is the internet.

I’ve chosen a few memes that I believe are internet classics. As with every piece of cultural data, memes deserve a closer look:

Massive protest in 2011.

Massive protest in 2011.

Internet censorship is still a hot button issue.

Internet censorship is still a hot button issue.

Humor has always been a good vehicle used to address issues that affect our daily lives. They give us this “Ah, ha!” moment, what is known as catharsis, making us understand things in ways that conventional mediums (newspaper articles, TV news) fail to do.

Most memes have funny origins, and it is enlightening to search for these moments now frozen in time. Such is the case of scientist Neil de Grasse Tyson, one of the most important science commentators since Carl Sagan:

Memes are units of cultural information that spread; and in the internet age, they mutate and spread with astonishing speed. They are a good way to have a pulse on current issues (politics, religion, art, science, etc.). Maybe the current meme is not what Dawkins reffered to, but it does spread in exponential numbers. And this is something worth checking out; we have to think about the web and how it affects the way we interact with each other and our surroundings–and to understand the significance of a meme is a good first step.

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48 thoughts on “The Meme

  1. I think that is very interesting, when I first heard of memes and I researched them I thought they were useless and silly things, after reading this article I am more open minded about memes. I have an idea, what if we were, in class, to make our own memes about whatever we are studying and so we could use them to study and to refer to certain subjects relating to science.

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  2. since this silly but humorous photos came out i always thought that a meme meant the picture or a sort of joke but by reading this it has really opened my mind to this.

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  3. WOW! I have seen memes before but I didn’t know where they came from. Now I do. Yay! 😀 Also I didn’t know what the word meme meant and it’s absolutely different of what I imagined.

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    • Every form of expression–art, music, cinema, graffitti, memes, etc.–can be a source of enlightment. The important thing is to learn how to appreciate the value of things. That is why reading, anything, is so important.

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  4. At first, when I read about memes and when i first saw them, I wasnt very interested but now after reading this article i’m very surprised what the word means. And i agree with raquel, I always thought memes were for entertainment but now i know they can also be educational.

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  5. I have never heard about that word, and I really had to research about this theme. I could understand that this term refers to all the activity that are created in the internet . Its the greatest of the internet that can communicate something very fast like a virus, we can put images, thoughts, ideas, pictures, symbols, products, etc. They could be imitate, reproduce, maintain during all the time.

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  6. memes always make me laugh so to now know some are for educational purpose i would love to read all kinds of memes people may post! btw i would’ve never imagine they were for educational purposes!

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    • Any piece of cultural information–book, film, comic book, tv show, etc.–can be educational in some way. The important thing about education is that it is not limited to what happens between he walls of a classroom. any event can present itself as an educational opportunuty.

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  7. It would have never gone through my mind that memes were created for educational purposes. It has changed drastically through out the years because first it was for educatiional purposes and now days they are done for simply a joke or even it is used for bullying.

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  8. Memes are Actually helpful to understand things and at the same time they give you a little giggle or maybe alot. Memes can be useful to criticize but at the same time make you see the real stupidities or actually learning …

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  9. Memes would be actually good because; for example teenagers hate to read articles but with memes we can view it in a fun way but yet we know what it is about and if you see a meme that says somthing about politics sum can make sense

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  10. I wasn’t aware that Richard Dawkins was the man who basically invented the word meme, although I had already researched that its origin was from latin, but the best information I got from this post was the name Neil deGrasse Tyson. I had previously watched a lot of videos from Carl Sagan (which is an amazing commentator) and now I know the name to someone who seems to be as equally entertaining and educative as him.

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  11. I feel that memes can be a very resourceful tool for the future and the internet. Although some people use it for wrong, think about all the good it can do in education, work, and everyday life.

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  12. its sad to see that such a useful tool like memes is used with ignorance and inmaturity. it was made to educate, not for inept people to use it as a joke

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  13. Memes are really fun to read they make me laugh a lot and it’s really nice to know they have educational purposes. Although the educational ones aren’t that funny like then ones people post making jokes hahah 🙂

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    • I agree. Memes are like graffiti: in the sense that people believe that they don’t have any sociological value, when in fact, both mediums—graffiti and memes—can give a lot of insight into what people are interested in.

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  14. Before reading this post, I thought memes were all funny but I learned that they can also be educational sometimes. Memes can make learning more entertaining than it usually is.

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  15. woooooooooooooow memes are not just funny pictures ?! funfact: memes can be used for almost anything.
    ——-> just learned that now 🙂 this is actually very interesting i never thought their originality would be from this ! cool blog post

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  16. Wow! I would have never thought that memes came from that! This article really opened up my mind about memes! Really intresting!

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  17. Pingback: Memes as Genes, Genes as Memes: a Strange Loop of Information | The Hypertextual Lounge

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