The Meme is the Message

I’ll begin with this:

Nor Hobbits

Oh, and this:


And this touch of brilliance too:

I have just finished marking my last load of first-year papers and decided that I may have to buy stronger coffee [Editor’s note: as if this is possible!]

Anyways, after finishing [some of] the marking I decided to do some research for an upcoming assignment and found myself browsing through memes (so much for the research :D).  An interesting question popped into my head: what is so fascinating about memes?  Simply put, they are hilarious.  They are goofy.  Some are political, most are not.  Let’s get a little academicky here.  Memes provide insight into our culture.

The term “meme” was coined by the famous (or infamous?) biologist, Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.  Dawkins defines the “meme” as follows:

 “a noun which 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… 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”[editor’s note: Dawkins is being fabulously random right there.  Fabulously random for a scientist.]

A wonderful, albeit Dawkinish, definition. Memes have now become cultural replicators.  If something goes viral, it becomes a meme.  Digital platforms, such as Youtube, relies on users for profit and, for this reason, they are designed to be used repeatedly by a mass audience.  If you browse through Youtube, you will notice how absolutely silly memes are, but they allow us to communicate and critique the culture we live in.  They are self-reflexive, self-conscious, and part of our collective social experience.

Memes become replicated ad nauseam. The most popular ones have become fixtures on the internet. Parodies within parodies.

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins provides a discussion on the motivations behind meme transmission.  Of course, he is talking about memes in biological, but some of these motivations still directly apply to cyberculture.  Here is the list, with some comments of my own:

a meme is…

Preservational: the purpose behind replicating an idea is to preserve it for future use

Easy to replicate: Related to above.  Similar to anything popular, the idea cannot be too complicated since it has to reach a general audience.  Dawkins uses the word “cogent” and puns it on “cognitive” in The Selfish Gene.  Memes are easy to produce and consume, hence, this explains why they spread so rapidly (they go ‘viral’).

Adversarial: Memes are often critical, even while being silly.  Sarcastic, ironic, sardonic, or darkly humorous content is common.  Political content is perhaps as critical as memes get; however, this criticism can be effective (consider the “binders with women” memes and what this did to Romney’s reputation).

Motivational: as in ‘inspiring.’ (ironic quotes intended).  Memes must inspire some form of positive response and be worthy of reproduction in order to appreciated and shared.

This last point also explains how memes can serve as a marketing tools for some form of product, such as a film or television show, or even make average people (or cats) famous.

The cognitive factor of memes is perhaps the most engaging.  Memes are generated to be seen by many people and, hence, have to trigger some sort of recognition from a wide audience.  Like commercials, memes use techniques to advertise an idea and success comes in sharing this idea.

Digital media has enabled any person to contribute to the larger public from the private lives.  Memes are just one example of how people use the internet to establish an online identity – if you share a recognizable meme, you establish a communication link with others.  The origin of the meme could reveal little significance to why we share it.  Sharing is gives the meme significance.  Similar to Marshall McLuhan’s catchphrase “the medium is the message,” the internet, which provides users with the ability to share, is the message.  It is the meme and the content it contains.

To all: Merry Christmas and happy tidings for the new year!  See you in 2013 (that is, if the Mayans were indeed incorrect :S)

About dontpanictrent

DON'T PANIC: A Trent Graduate Student Blog


  1. THE SELFISH GENE | One Minute Theory - December 26, 2012

    […] The Meme is the Message ( […]

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