Nothing defines our use of the internet as clearly as the concept of the meme (pronounced “meem”).
Virally shared “nuggets of cultural currency” such as these are examples of “memetics”, an important mechanism of meaning that pre-dates the internet but is now central to the the internet’s rising creative comment culture.
Early in the 1920s, the biologist Richard Semon used the term “mnemes” in theorising biologically inheritable memory.
Richard Dawkins, in his 1974 book The Selfish Gene, took a different tack, shortening the Greek term “mimētḗs” (imitator) to coin “meme” as a cultural analogue to the biological gene: a “self-replicating unit of information”.
Genes, Dawkins argued, are subject to the forces of evolution: variation, mutation, competition and inheritance.
Not all memes are successful, and even “new” memes often bear traces of those that have passed.
Nor are memes static – rather they have three properties by which they evolve existing variations:
- Intertextuality. Memes reference other memes or other concepts, e.g. the Joseph Decreaux meme mashes up 18th century art and imagined vernacular with gangsta rap vernacular.
- Indexicality. An element in one meme can be used to comment on many situations. “Exploitable” memes such as Disaster Girl can be overlaid on to any picture of a disaster.
- Templatability. Memes have recognisable structures with spaces for new content, e.g. “I am in your base, killing your doodz” becomes “I am in your [Noun 1], [Verb-ing] your [Noun 2],” to be reused in multiple contexts.
A meme may be created by an individual or an institution deliberately (many marketing companies now strive to create viral content) or, as often as not, an accidental image, turn-of-phrase or concept will be exploited by a savvy netizen (as was the case for Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” gaffe).
Genes rely on their hosts for transmission, and memes are no exception: in creating the internet it turns out that we have developed the ultimate meme hothouse.
- Replicability. Digital objects are infinitely reproducible and exploitable across a range of platforms.
- Searchability. Finished versions of memes as well as raw materials and templates are easily found.
- Scalability. Digital objects are created for a particular audience but with the knowledge that they can spread to an unknowably large audience wherever the internet is available.
- Persistence. Although individual digital objects may not last as long as analogue objects, they are infinitely transferable and storable in many locations.
Variations on a theme is the name of the game with memes, as attested to by the huge number of memes posted every day at user-generated content sites such as 4chan and Reddit, and categorised at sites such as the Cheezburger Network.
Engines providing both the raw materials and editing capabilities to rapidly produce new instances of common memes have even been developed at sites such as memegenerator.net and imgur and Cheezburger’s Rage Comic LOLBuilder, so that even the technically-challenged can use a meme to express something – as long as they understand the template.
You can even find sites such as Know Your Meme that actively track, research, and report on the genealogy, forms, and popularity of memes.
One might be forgiven, at this point, for wondering why memes matter beyond entertainment.
Understanding memes is an important way to keep a finger on current trends or the appeal of long term trends, but more importantly memes tell us about new literacies, how people understand crises and how they attempt to effect social change through movements such as Occupy and Anonymous, so-called slacktivism, or electoral engagement.
User-generated content is the key concept here because memes are indicative of a change from last century’s passive read-only culture to an active read-write or produsage-oriented culture, in which very few resources are needed to broadcast a message to the entire world–as Cory Bernardi has discovered.
Petty as they may seem, then, memes have value and we must protect them as a form of expression when governments and corporations attempt to chill fair use of “copyright” materials via treaties such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.