That would be the question if I only I could be as certain as others seem to be about what a meme is. I never use the word — not because I don’t know one when I see one. I do. But because I have no idea what sort of things are NOT memes. Isn’t everything a meme?
Unless that something is extinct — then yes, it appears so.
For starters, a disclaimer on today’s title: a meme is a noun, not a verb — though by the end of this post I’d like to suggest we start using it as a verb too. As in, “that’s so cool, I’m meme-ing that” or “brilliant idea – go forth and meme” or “hey wait a second, that’s my idea, don’t meme me!”
While I’ve been hearing about memes for a good few years now, the first person I remember talking about them was my friend Remy who reads the New Scientist like an addict — ever-mindful that there’s a new weekly edition waiting for his consumption as he furtively stows last week’s rolled up copy inside in his trenchcoat.
It’s just like a New Scientist reader to walk around talking about memes — the word was given to us by none other than Richard Dawkins as far back as 1976 with his book The Selfish Gene. According to Richard,
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
So far, so good. I get what they are, but not what they aren’t.
While the word comes from the Greek ‘mimeme’ (to imitate), Richard was making a point about how they evolve and pass along and mutate by having the word rythme with “gene”. Susan Blackmore, who studies memes, helps clarify my question by reminding us that the exact defintion is “that which is imitated”.
Which means EVERYTHING that sticks is a meme.
- Things like manbags and reality TV shows
- Ideas like crackberry and consumerist society
- Practices like joggers running with their prams (I sincerely hope this meme dies off) or dressing our pets in costumes (also good to go) or inserting emoticons in our emails (ditto) or walking into meetings carrying a Venti skinny extra shot latte (am OK with)
- And symbols … like 😉
And if you hadn’t noticed, blogging is definitely a meme.
My list could have read very differently. I might have mentioned things like indoor toilets, ideas like marrying for love, practices like throwing people in prison and symbols like the peace sign. But because we’ve become used to these, there are not what most people mean when they use the word meme — what they really mean is NEW human behaviour, new trends, new quirks that are catching on.
Susan Blackmore shares a funny example with us in her TED Talk on the subject*
What makes memes special is that apparently only humans pass things along culturally. I find this hard to believe, I can just imagine one cat teaching another cat how to break into a micro-chipped cat flap and then more cats cottoning on … but maybe that’s just me ….
All living organisms have genes but only us humans also got memes.
The most obvious meme to me is the use of the word itself.
I mean memes have been around forever and have been labelled as such and talked about since 1976 — soon that’ll be almost 50 years ago! so how come the word finally went viral and is close now to becoming mainstream? I don’t know … I suppose it might have something to do with Richard writing more books and getting more press, something to do with the internet and Facebook and Twitter and the rise of socially contagious media (all forms of which are memes in and of themselves).
But that’s the subject of this weekend’s blog – things I don’t know about. In particular words and phrases that come up all the time that make me stop and think and then realize I’m a bit confused. Well, not anymore – because I’ll be digging into some of these semi-mysteries to see if I can’t figure out what’s going on. Stay tuned!
*Blackmore’s TED talk is like most TED talks — worth watching, even though she is a little bit annoying.