To meme or not to meme

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.

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10 Comments

Filed under Social psychology, Words

10 responses to “To meme or not to meme

  1. Another interesting topic!

    The word meme has only been around for a while but the idea if cultural trends that morph and evolve is pretty much as old as art I reckon. So since the very early days. I’m not sure if things like ‘The Morphology of the Folktale’ were written after Dawkins but things like that, where you try and break art or culture down into archetypes and then study how those elements interact with the world, they seem to me to be the root that the idea of meme evolved from.

    When Aristotle came up with the rules of tragedy and drama he was both identifying memes within theatre and creating them.

    That’s the thing I always wonder, is the act of identifying a meme or a trend a big part if the reason they take hold? And how does one create a meme? How can you know what will go viral or what won’t. As an artist i’m always looking for the magical formula to make what I do become something observed into culture. And it often seems impossible to do it deliberately. But then when your work becomes a meme isn’t that what leads to the Roland Barthed/ Foucault idea of the death of the author? Is Shakespeare a person or a meme? His work standing for things culturally that he has no control over. But then he really is dead. Alive artists find themselves trapped by their own cultural memes often battling type casting for the rest of their career.

    Dawkins himself as a cultural idea now really represents atheism/scepticism his later books linking his name to that idea, even as his earlier work is absorbed as memes but lacking the stamp of him. Culturally we know about memes and The Selfish Gene but we don’t really link those terms with their author. Just as there are so many day to day phrases we use that are quotes from Shakespeare but we don’t know it.

    Sorry if this response is garbled and confused I am currently under the influence of a real life virus: the cold. This us one thing I wish hadn’t gone viral.

  2. nathaliehourihan

    The inner thoughts of an artist with a head cold — love it! I asked Bruce and he says he doesn’t know what you’re talking about — but then he is a cat and doesn’t do memes or cultural criticism. As for the rest of us the idea that some of us are trying to trigger memes is very interesting — especially in a consumer’s world. I definitely think the act of identifying a meme is what makes it stick, but like the example Blackmore gives of cutely folded toilet paper found around the world — the funniest are those we don’t overtly acknowledge and that just creep in. I’ll leave to Malcolm Gladwell to track down the first toilet paper folders —

    • Not just a victim of a cold but of the predictive text of the iphone!

      Glad my sickbed ramblings weren’t completely useless. I think that the best memes are definitely the ones that happen organically. It’s like success; trying to become successful is exhausting but things you do without looking for success, the things that come out because they have to they’re the things that seem to resonate and stick.

      Emily and Arthur are becoming a bit of a meme at the moment:

      http://www.studioarthur.co.uk/

      Talked about in The Daily Mail, The Metro and all over twitter!

  3. nathaliehourihan

    Have you read the book Obliquity? I liked it. Is about how indirect goals are best. Companies that search for profit fail, but other examples too … Makes the case that success and profit etc come from having a different goal – they are just by-products

    Re Emily and Arthur – that is TOO uncanny! On Thursday night a small group of us had a bookclub and it came up in convo about the baby getting famous in the Metro — a story I’d missed. And it turns out to be our own Emily and Arthur — fantastic —

    • Obliquity sounds interesting.

      Yeah the Emily/Arthur thing is strange. I’m waiting till people I know who don’t know her post it on their facebook walls. That will suggest to me it’s gone super viral.

      She was even contacted by one of the directors of The Blair Witch Project after their Halloween special!

  4. So weird to think random people are talking about it!

    It really has been fascinating for me watching it genuinely go viral. I didn’t even really try and publicise it, just put a link on StumbledUpon. From that, it got picked up in Brazil, then Sweden, then the UK, and now we’ve been on ABC’s Good Morning America … crazy.

    Em

  5. nathaliehourihan

    So much fun!!! I hadn’t even heard of StumbleUpon but have just signed up and love it — though can only work out to browse it … now how to post to it …. is that hard?! Am delighted I got to meet A. before he found fame — apparently that’s the only way to have a friendship with celebrity … to know them before they were one — read that in GQ or something at the hairdresser’s

  6. That’s the thing I always wonder, is the act of identifying a meme or a trend a big part if the reason they take hold? And how does one create a meme? How can you know what will go viral or what won’t. As an artist i’m always looking for the magical formula to make what I do become something observed into culture. And it often seems impossible to do it deliberately. But then when your work becomes a meme isn’t that what leads to the Roland Barthed/ Foucault idea of the death of the author? Is Shakespeare a person or a meme? His work standing for things culturally that he has no control over. But then he really is dead. Alive artists find themselves trapped by their own cultural memes often battling type casting for the rest of their career.
    +1

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