The Word Meme

The definition of a meme is: a unit of cultural expression that replicates itself in culture-alike cycles in the culture at large. In other words, a meme means imitation. In fact, the French language defines a meme as a: “a unit of imitation”.

Memes are more than just a viral strategy, but a communicative strategy as well. The internet has become so fertile ground for memes, that everyone from geeks to large corporations use them in their marketing strategy. You may have seen these memes everywhere from on viral video to web sites.

What are memes? Memes are not original. They do not require copying, like a novel or television program. They can be wildly different from each other, because they are animated, they can be visually stimulating, and they can be purely social, with shared group dynamics or activity.

They are not that difficult to replicate, because in a social environment where many people are in competition to be the most popular, there is no reason that a meme cannot spread, and when it does, it will be highly contagious. This means that a great meme is much like a contagious disease.

The definition of a meme is like a viral activity, which replicate itself, and has a lot of people participating in the reproduction process. In short, a meme can be viewed as a living, spreading microbe. Once a meme is out there, it is out there forever, and it will keep on being passed around by the operation of physics.

Great memes can change the way a culture thinks, acts, feels, and chooses to behave. It is the uniting factor that connects the institution, the arts, science, and the everyday life of humans. To put it another way, a meme can change a culture, and it can change how a culture thinks about itself.

How do memes form? This is actually the most important question. A scientist would look at a meme and ask if it was an example of an organism (an individual), living within a culture (the environment), and if the culture had an evolutionary element. In other words, the genetic state (the meme) is the result of an evolutionary process – and the process of evolutionary change is the human capacity for creativity.

Memetic theorists find it is difficult to make a distinction between a meme, and a part of the cultural system. The sociologist Donald Hebb asked the “why” of memetics, asking if it was a mind or a set of ideas, or a process of ‘design’. The geneticist is continually looking for the factors that cause an idea to take on life and ultimately become a meme.

There is no shortage of ideas about how a meme might spread through culture. Some theories propose that the process occurs through a ‘multiplication of varieties’ which “dissociate themselves from the primary variety to form new varieties”. The late anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote “In the process of dissociation, multiplicities are perceived as essentially diverse”. The popularization of memes could occur through visual representations, or through symbolic exchanges – indeed, it might occur as a completely different animal altogether.

Although we can’t observe memetics (though modern theory tries to point us in the right direction), we can see it from the inside and, perhaps more importantly, the outside. Just think about what you see, and notice all the memes that you are coming into contact with every day. These are not only the products of you and me, but they are products of our environment.

Memeticists are constantly on the look out for new ways to spread their ideas. One thing is certain: we are moving fast – at this rate of diffusion, the internet is only a mouse click away from being full of memes.

Memes are living ideas. They are alive, they reproduce, and, if you understand their implications, you understand us as well.