On the Origin of Memes

Internet meme dumb ways to die

We call an activity, concept, catchphrase or piece of media which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person online an Internet meme. Many have been circulating in social networks over the last several years, chances are you've seen at least two.

Because clever marketers have been using them to create interest in products, as with The New Old Spice Guy. We wouldn't have heard about the 2006 action thriller Snakes on a Plane had it not been for memes. Yet buzz doesn't necessarily translate into box office success.

Another example is the successful Dumb Ways to Die, an Australian public service announcement campaign by Metro Trains in Melbourne to promote railway safety. Its message was potentially life-saving — according to Metro Trains, the campaign contributed to a more than 30 percent reduction in “near-miss” accidents. A bigger win than all the awards it got.

The origin of the word “meme” comes from biology. It was first coined by British entomologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. Dawkins coins the term from a Greek word 'mimeme,' which means something imitated, to define the unit of culture we transmit to each other: 

I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture.

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 meme. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

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.

If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter:

‘… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.’ 

They're a form of cultural transmission, a way to share ideas with each other to have fun like with LOL cats and have something to signal as FTW, which means for the win. Memes as packaged units of content are ideal for our social need to connect with each other — artifacts perfect to spread gossip and rumors.


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