What is a meme?

I’m going to declare “meme” the official word of 2010. It took off in popularity, almost as much as the cultural touchstones the word refers to. It’s a confusing word, because it was intended to mean something entirely different 35 years ago.

Richard Dawkins coined the term in his book “The Selfish Gene” to mean any influential idea that builds itself into a culture.Some examples from our culture: “washing your hands is important”, or “society needs some people to be really rich”, or “your clothing indicates what sort of person you are”. It does not matter if an idea is true or not; to become a meme, an idea must be able to quickly take root and change the way a large group of people behave.

You could see this philosophy in the Star Trek series. People from a futuristic culture followed a “Prime Directive” – which was designed to keep their cultures’ memes from spreading to more primitive cultures. If something were to spread from an outside influence, there might not be enough understanding built into the culture to fully support it. If that were to happen, that meme could transform into something destructive. The “wash your hands” meme (without a proper understanding of germs and sickness) could end in spreading MORE diseases throughout a society.

All that aside, the word “meme” seems to be understood very differently today. The focus on the spread of big ideas has shifted onto the spread of cultural touchstones. Social creatures naturally share interesting things amongst themselves, but these interesting things aren’t really world-changing. Cute kittens and silly drawings may be amusing, but they don’t change how we think.

Are our cultural touchstones different from those generated decades earlier? Yes and no. They are spread in the same way, but have a different source. For the past hundred years, advertising has been building memes. Companies sold the idea of “wash your hands” to people through print ads, and eventually through the actions portrayed in television and film. Their intent was to build up a demand for commercialized soap – and it worked brilliantly. By introducing a meme into the right environment, society shifted in a certain direction and people started buying hand soap.

Today’s Internet memes are much smaller, and are built by the community (rather than outsiders looking to influence people toward a purchase). Memes become popular by the public’s snap judgment of the content’s worth. Each meme spreads depending on how deeply its content resonates with the public. If a certain image or video is particularly moving, it will reach a huge audience.

Advertisers still craft large-scale memes to push the undercurrent of public opinion. We cannot easily perceive the spread of these memes, as they are designed to manipulate our perceptions over time. However, small-scale Internet-spread memes live on the surface of society. Their spread is easily tracked as they do not do much more than gauge where society’s current sensibilities lie. For this reason, “small memes” have taken over the current meaning of the word – while large memes are practically ignored.


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