The Curious Life of Memes

Memes have become a ubiquitous part of internet culture. Keyboard Cat, Doge and Overly Attached Girlfriend are just a few of the thousands of memes that have emerged since that first unknown user decided to mail a captioned photo of a cat to a friend. Some memes explode into prominence, expend all their potential and energy in a few weeks and then flame out, unable to sustain interest or relevance. Others persist, such as the Winter is Coming meme, changing and evolving to fit new circumstances. In an increasingly interconnected world where much of what digital culture produces remains tied to language and specific national concepts, internet memes cut across barriers by distilling culture down to an easily transmittable, easily understandable, highly infectious unit. Checking any sort of social media will show a great percentage of posts composed of nothing but reposted memes. The same image of Good Guy Greg can be found overlaid with text in Chinese, Russian and English. Entire conversations are carried out with memes, while a humorous or scathing meme can suffice as a response to an argument or a rebuttal to a challenge. Web sites have appeared to cater to the meme phenomena while academia has tried to make sense of the phenomena in books and essays. There are valid reasons for both the popularity of memes and for the greater scrutiny that is being lavished upon them. Memes are more than a momentary diversion or an easy way to make a point. They say a great deal about modern digital society while helping to create an entirely new transnational online culture and language–albeit at a potentially steep cost.

The concept of memes was not developed with the internet in mind as in 1976 the digital world was still in the realm of science fiction for ordinary people. Yet it was with the advent of the internet that the meme truly came into its own and at the same time evolved away from the original idea.

The concept of the meme was pioneered by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Most of the book centers on Dawkins’ attempts to refine evolutionary theory by considering what he deems to be the basic elements of the equation: individuals and the genes at the very core of their being. However, human society and behavior is not simply a collection of genetic imperatives. Humans are also driven by the push and pull of cultural influences. Dawkins brings in the idea of culture by looking at what he deemed to be the basic elements of culture, which he called memes. Memes are the way culture is transmitted, jumping from person to person, whether it is in the form of a fashion trend, a catchphrase or a new song. Much like genes, memes are able to spread and evolve. Moreover, they want to spread. Genes move from body to body; memes move from brain to brain. As units of culture, as ideas that can take up residence in a human mind, they are able to change at a much faster pace than the comparatively slow rate of biological units. As an example, Dawkins points to the ability of language to rapidly evolve, noting that a 21st century Englishman would be hard pressed to communicate effectively with the 14th century writer Geoffrey Chaucer while biologically the two would be the same as any pair of modern male humans. Memes emerge and compete for human attention, as humans serve as their means of propagation. The best memes, the fittest memes in a sense, persist and replicate. Some are short lived, while others last for generations. This winnowing process is Dawkins’ answer to the reason why human societies show so much variance while still maintaining long held traditions and concepts.

The concept of memes was not developed with the internet in mind as in 1976 the digital world was still in the realm of science fiction for ordinary people. Yet it was with the advent of the internet that the meme truly came into its own and at the same time evolved away from the original idea. The modern internet meme differs from Dawkins’ concept, to the point where Dawkins claims internet memes hijacked his idea and mutated it into a new iteration. The major point of departure between the meme described in The Selfish Meme and internet memes is that in the original concept, memes appeared naturally. Many modern internet memes are developed by design. Rather than being a cultural unit that may or may not be able to find purchase in a persons’ mind and thus society as a whole, memes are now created with the express goal of propagating, designed intentionally to worm their way into a persons’ brain. Dawkins argued that genes and memes could not be considered, “conscious, purposeful agents.” Internet memes naturally lack purposeful action, but rather the humans behind them are the conscious agents, acting with an agenda.

To illustrate the appeal of memes an example is useful. One of the latest memes to make the rounds on the internet is Hail Hydra, borrowing from a scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier where a character leans in to another and whispers “Hail Hydra”, the salute of the movie’s antagonist organization. Instead of the characters from the film, the original Hail Hydra meme used a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. The meme works on several levels, referencing the popular and successful Captain America franchise, adding an amusingly sinister twist to two existing childhood icons and allowing for the replication of the idea by spawning imitators turning otherwise innocuous pictures into something nefarious. (Although given Bert’s past in the Bert is Evil meme, perhaps this shouldn’t be unexpected.) The combination of familiar characters, utility, creativity and amusement value gave Hail Hydra the factors it needed to quickly go viral and spread online, although the meme has yet to prove it can stand the test of time.

Validity is not an essential component for a meme and it can even be advantageous for a meme to disseminate falsehoods if incorrect information allows a meme to spread faster.

The consequences of memes loom large in digital culture. On a very elemental level, they now comprise part of the language of the internet. A glance at any conversation on Reddit or Facebook will reveal a discussion carried out with a combination of words and memes in the form of images and video. Today’s digital culture lends itself to the use of memes as the devices at the heart of current modes of internet access such as tablets and smartphones are meant as a means to consume internet content, while generally limiting the creation of content to uploading photos, reposting memes and making comments. The limitations of communicating with such devices makes the use of memes attractive as they convey a message backed up by a wider concept. The Scumbag Steve meme, regardless of whatever text is superimposed upon it, conveys a a certain idea. This shorthand gives those fluent in the evolving language of internet culture the ability to quickly make a point that can be readily understood by others and transcend the limitations imposed by national cultures and devices. Memes also have an appeal that goes beyond the practical as some gain traction by simply being funny or watchable. The Sneezing Panda video is one such meme. Funny memes and practical memes both have found different avenues to survive and replicate, just as animal species utilize different means to propagate their genes.

The rampant use of memes does carry with it potentially negative consequences. Memes do not have to be accurate or even beneficial. Validity is not an essential component for a meme and it can even be advantageous for a meme to disseminate falsehoods if incorrect information allows a meme to spread faster. Going back to Dawkins’ description in The Selfish Gene, memes exist to propagate, not to inform. The ability of memes to instill an idea into a human mind gives them a great deal of power. Alongside the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the Hail Hydra meme, a second meme appeared. Banking on the similarities between Captain America’s movie costume and the flag of Puerto Rico, the meme made the amusing claim that the superhero should really be called Captain Puerto Rico. A followup meme further distorted history by giving the dates of Captain America’s first appearance (1941) and the date of the adoption of the Puerto Rican flag (1952) to make the claim that Puerto Rico borrowed its flag design from a comic book character. A little research proves both memes to be false, yet that did not dampen their popularity or their rapid spread as the claims seemed reasonable and were presented in the casual, quick manner of memes that dissuades deeper investigation. After all, how long does the average internet user spend on a single meme? Look, share and then move on is the standard sequence of events.

A second meme made the rounds around Easter of 2014. The meme used an image of a statue of the pagan fertility goddess Ishtar and claimed that the modern holiday of Easter was derived from the celebrations for Ishtar. Ishtar, the meme helpfully stated, was pronounced the same as Easter as a means to further its claim while stressing that rabbits and eggs were fertility symbols. The information the meme offered was provocative enough to allow it to spread, even though the memes premise is incorrect. While sharing some similar elements, Easter and Ishtar are two words are from completely different languages and with decidedly different origins. Again, the meme used superficial similarities as a starting point to make a larger and erroneous argument that managed to gain traction and aid in the spread of the meme. Coincidentally, on Facebook several of the Ishtar/Easter memes were credited to a page called The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official). Whether the meme was an official creation or not, the Foundation and Dawkins himself are committed to a secular view of the world and the underlying message of the Easter/Ishtar meme worked to discredit any purely Christian origin for the holiday. As stated earlier, the designing hand of humanity has altered memes from their original course, creating them to serve particular purposes as well as improving their ability to “infect” human minds.

While the contributions and consequences of memes to digital culture are fascinating, some theorists see them as potentially dangerous. Futurist Dominic Basulto warns that rather than being simply a sometimes useful, sometimes funny unit of internet culture, memes have become a replacement for intelligent thought. Instead of crafting a well thought out response to an argument, a meme is substituted instead. This reliance on the thoughts and ideas of others encapsulated in memes can lead to a virtual dumbing down of the population. Political debates, Basulto notes, were once immune to memes. Now memes are widespread in political commentary online as quick and easy ways to express opinions with minimal effort. In Basulto’s view, memes have also become meaningless as carriers of culture as they have become co-opted by corporations as a means to deliver advertising to consumers. The previous Darwinian process of meme selection is gone, replaced by carefully designed memes specifically concocted to take hold in a consumer’s mind. Basulto, Dawkins and Susan Blackmore even wonder if memes have managed to turn humans into meme survival machines, reducing human initiative and intelligence so as to better serve in that role. Shades of The Matrix, except with Business Cat instead of malignant artificial intelligences.

When you click to share a video on Facebook or pronounce dog as “doge” consider what is happening. Are you sharing a funny image of a cat or mispronouncing a word to reference a pop culture phenomena to amuse others, falling victim to a clever, orchestrated attempt to infect your mind with advertisements or you are acting as the unwitting carrier of an idea that Dawkins would say has “parasitized” your brain and turned you into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation? Memes are much more than just diversions and their full impact is only now being studied. So before the next time you click on share, think about what you are saying when you decide to say it with a meme.

 Further Reading: 

  • Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York : Oxford University Press, 1989.
  • Shifman, L. “Memes in a Digital World: Reconciling with a Conceptual Troublemaker.” Journal Of Computer-Mediated Communication 18, no. 3 (April 2013) : 362-377.






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