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:
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.