Fleeting Memes

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a breakthrough text in biology. The book illustrates evolution from the point-of-view of a “gene,” essentially a self-interested replicator. To illustrate the concept of cultural evolution, Dawkins coined the term “meme,” meaning a small piece of coherent, transmittable culture, “replicated” through the minds of human beings.

The term “meme” has exploded into popular consciousness in the last decade thanks to global culture. Now memes are emailed and re-tweeted, referenced by late night talk show hosts and news anchors, and generally replicated in a huge number of minds at astounding rates (“Gangnam Style” already had over one billion views by the time I saw it).

The internet is the perfect petri dish for these replicators because the breadth and speed with which memes are broadcast exceeds anything in history. One of the consequences of this is that a “meme” is now seen, like much on the internet, as ephemeral.

As Dawkins pointed out in a later version of The Selfish Gene, the word “meme” has itself proved to be a good meme because of its survival and replication into popular consciousness. The gene/meme metaphor is apt too, since like genes, memes replicate and adapt, and the memes that find a “best fit” for their environment continue to replicate successfully.

(Take the “Grumpy Cat” meme as an example. This is a photo or video of a cat with a face that looks grumpy. Thirty years ago, a photo like this might be shown to relatives, and a good laugh would be had, and there it would end. But now the whole world gets to see it and adapt it for any situation where a grumpy cat face might get a laugh. The meme is so popular that unbelievably, the cat has a movie deal.)

I recently wrote a short science fiction story in which the personalities of the recently deceased were uploaded into a machine, and I used the term “meme-ify,” a take on mummify, as in a form of preservation. I was surprised to receive the story note that “meme” now connotes something less than permanent, almost discardable, the exact opposite of what I intended.

Whatever your views on Jesus, I submit one of his most impressive accomplishments was to “meme-ify” himself in his final moments. He gave up his physical life and transformed himself into a meme. We can now transmit the mystery of Christ to another mind by simply showing them a crucifix, and this meme has persisted for two thousand years.

It’s this sort of permanent “meme-ification” that I was going for, but it seems like the internet has mutated the intended meaning of the word to suit itself. I suppose it’s just natural selection at work; multitudes of fleeting memes are a best-fit for the internet. For the sake of my story, I’d like to use Dawkins’ intended meaning, but I think the new meaning might have reached a critical popularity.

Homo sapiens can’t give birth to Australopithecus. I suppose I’ll have to forgo the elegance of “meme” and come up with another way to say it. Is the old meaning extinct? What does “meme” mean to you?

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