Memes: Photos and other kinds

The two screen grabs above show two separate searches on Google Images. The top set: obama meme. The bottom set: romney meme. This kind of (usually amusing) photo with text is called a meme.

However, the word meme also has a broader, older meaning. I mentioned this in class, but I wanted to try to reinforce it here so you don’t go around thinking that only these funny pictures are memes!

Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, created the word meme. He wrote about human genes as a mechanism that replicates attributes of human beings; he then proposed that there are similar mechanisms (also tiny) that replicate attributes of culture. Of course the culture-replicating mechanisms are not biological — they are more like packets of information. Sayings, bits of a melody, fables and myths, and (of course) visual materials too — all of these can carry memes.

Dawkins called a meme “a unit of cultural transmission.” He said these units “propagate themselves by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation” (p. 192). Through memes, humans have learned to plant seeds, make pottery, write, and do all manner of harmless and harmful things.

And yes, thanks to the way memes can spread like a virus, we have also learned how to paste text onto photos and share them all over the Internet. An Internet meme is just a meme that spreads via the Internet.

There have been many memes in the course of human history, so memes are NOT in any way dependent on the Internet.


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