What is a Meme?

This post is also available in Dutch.

You’ll find funny images posted online, called ‘memes’. However, this word has been used far longer in the scientific world. So, what is a ‘meme’ then?

This photo of Turkish grill chef Nusret Gökçe, better known as Salt Bae, is one of the most popular memes of the year. Photo: Instagram.

The internet is a social world in itself. Just like in real life, you’ll find countless trends on the web. They can vary between funny pictures such as Salt Bae (look above), to Rick Roll jokes. There’s also trends that equally find place both in real life and on the web, like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. This is when someone is filmed having a bucket of ice thrown over their head, and this film is shared online with friends so that the challenge gets passed on. All these things fall under the category of ‘memes’ within cyber culture. However, that word was already in use long before the internet even existed!

What is a meme?
The word ‘meme’ was first thought up by British biologist, Richard Dawkins, when he used it is in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He aimed to recognize how elements of culture spread from person to person, similar to trends on the internet. Dawkins intentionally searched for a word that would be similar to ‘gene’, the term used to describe a unit of DNA. In actuality, he realized that culture behaves just like genes in our DNA, usually following the same laws of biological evolution.

The Theory of Evolution
Charles Darwin’s Theory of evolution states that all life on the planet develops according to a particular pattern.  First and foremost, all living creatures differ in a variety of ways, ranging from their bodies to specific features (‘variation’). Furthermore, all living things find themselves in an environment where only those individuals with the most useful traits survive (‘natural selection’, also referred to as ‘survival of the fittest’). Those creatures that survive pass their traits onto their young (‘heredity’), and as result, life on Earth differs with every following generation.

Cultural Evolution
It is obviously not the case that only living creatures share these three properties of variation, natural selection and heredity. You could also apply them to elements of culture. Take for instance, language. We constantly make up new words (variation) that spread from person to person (heredity). However, only the words that actually have the right traits, because they are perhaps quite funny or are easy to use, are the words that become popular (natural selection). A word is therefore a nice example of a ‘meme’: an element or part of culture that spreads according to the laws of evolution.

Memes on the Internet
Memes that we find online, are not exactly the same as the memes that Richard Dawkins introduced in his book. The big difference, according to Dawkins, is that memes on the web are made intentionally by people. This means that variation doesn’t happen randomly, which is the case by genes.

But is this correct? Usually people don’t really know whether or not a meme is going to be funny in the cyber community. The majority of jokes online are incredibly far-fetched (or ‘random’).

It’s definitely true that many online users feel strongly about needing to be heard. Almost everyone has tried to create a funny image or pun (i.e. wordplay or double meaning), and sometimes the joke is a hit and goes viral. So, was that really the point? Of course! But by the time the creator has realized how popular their meme has become, they’ve already lost the battle against evolution.

This blog was written by Jeroen. Edited: Mahur. Translated: Marpessa.

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