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Explainer: what are memes?

Nothing defines our use of the internet as clearly as the concept of the meme (pronounced “meem”). Every day, millions of people laugh at LOLcats, dog shaming, and music videos without music, while others…

‘Success Kid’ – with its various slogans – has been an enduring meme of recent years. Know Your Meme

Nothing defines our use of the internet as clearly as the concept of the meme (pronounced “meem”).

Every day, millions of people laugh at LOLcats, dog shaming, and music videos without music, while others mock injustice, support marriage equality, poke fun at NSA surveillance, or call out racism.

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.

LOLcats pre-dated the Internet. The left image was taken by Harry Whittier Frees in 1905. The right is ‘Happy Cat’, the first LOLcat, from 2007 Wikipedia / Something Awful / Author

Wow history

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”.

Yo Dawg; Yo Dawg Dawkins. Know Your Meme / Author

Genes, Dawkins argued, are subject to the forces of evolution: variation, mutation, competition and inheritance.

On similar principles, certain ideas seem to rise and fall in cultures; the base concepts of art, religion and politics are memes, as are more fleeting trends, fads and fashions.

First day on the Internet Kid; Doge; First day on the Internet Doge. KnowYour Meme / Author

Such replication

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.

    Joseph Decreux 18th Century-Rap mashup meme: Know Your Meme

  • 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.

    Disaster Girl exploitable; Original exploit; Disaster Girl at the London riots. Know Your Meme / Author

  • 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.

    Original Know Your Meme / Author

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).

So internet

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.

In danah boyd’s terms, the internet is a “networked public” that has four features highly conducive to making and spreading memes:

  • 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.

You’re doing it wrong. funnyjunk

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 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.

Keep X and Carry Y original; Keep X and Carry Y used correctly; Keep X and Carry Y used incorrectly. Know Your Meme / Author

You can even find sites such as Know Your Meme that actively track, research, and report on the genealogy, forms, and popularity of memes.

Much important

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.

2013 Australian Commonwealth election anti-Coalition memes: Australia needs Tony Abbot / Tony Stark fake newspaper front page; Lampooning the Coalition’s NBN policy. Google Images

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.

Anti-TPP image that Wikileaks used to publicise its leak of the secretly-negotiated IP chapter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Google Images

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. George Michaelson


    godwin's law is a meme inserted by mike godwin to test the theory he could intrude a meme. it worked beyond his wildest dreams. 1990 to present, almost everyone who refers to it perpetuates the meme, and fails to understand they are part of the experiment..

  2. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    I've never been able to take Dawkin's notion of a meme as a 'self replicating information unit' seriously because it ignores the agency of human choice in the replication process. Besides, Mary Midgley described Dawkin's 'Selfish Gene' as 'biological Thatcherism' which is a deadly accurate dismissal.

    Still, I guess counting tweets as emanations of memes counts as social research these days.

    1. Sean Rintel

      Lecturer in Strategic Communication at University of Queensland

      In reply to Anthony Nolan

      You're absolutely right that human agency is central and that Dawkins's concept has been criticised. As well as the "biological Thatcherism" taunt it is also clearly very reductionist. That being said, it is the definition at the heart of the modern treatment of memes, so it has its place as a historical product of its time.

    2. Anthony Nolan

      logged in via email

      In reply to Sean Rintel

      Thanks for your reply. In fact, thanks for the article, which I found entertaining and informative. Sorry about appearing to be a grump in the first post.

  3. Mick Caine

    Analyst at Undisclosed

    ... It is a bit reprehensible (if not sacrilegious) to compare or conflate the concept of memetics (popularised by Dawkins) with the rather more frivolous internet meme, that this article focus' on.

    To juxtapose internet memes with the theory of memetics (... not withstanding it's criticisms) and present them as related is entirely misleading... Richard Dawkins himself has lamented the appropriation of the word 'meme' by the internet... and has said the internet hijacked the original idea:

    (..instead of mutating by random change and spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, they are altered deliberately by human creativity.... Unlike with genes (and Dawkins' original meaning of "meme"), there is no attempt at accuracy of copying; internet memes are deliberately altered)

    1. Sean Rintel

      Lecturer in Strategic Communication at University of Queensland

      In reply to Mick Caine

      Awesome troll.

      There are so many levels of irony here, are there not, in arguing that the internet inappropriately appropriated an idea about the spread of ideas. There is also deep irony in using the term "sacrilegious" to refer to a discussion about a concept proposed by the ultimate athiest.

      There is nothing scientific about Dawkins' concept, it was an of-the-cuff metaphor, really. It doesn't matter what Dawkins thinks about the fidelity of 'his' concept, it spread because it made explanatory sense, albeit in a loose manner.

      And frivolity, as I note, may be a red herring. Internet memes spread *because* of their apparent frivolity and have an underlying importance as comments upon what's happening in society.

    2. Peter Mcilwain

      Composer & Teacher

      In reply to Sean Rintel

      Sean if someone criticises your thinking they are are not necessarily trolls. I agree with your critic, your thinking very sloppy and you confuse terms. Mick is not complaining about appropriation he is saying that you seem to miss the fundamental point of memes as Dawkins observed it. That is that the tides that move history are moved by memes. It's a deep understanding of how culture evolves. Showing how memes can work as a self replicating process on the internet merely show the process. If the memes are about entertainment then their effect may not linger but Dawkins, if I remember correctly was interested in those memes that live on and have long term effects as do their genetic similes.

    3. Trevor S

      Jack of all Trades

      In reply to Sean Rintel

      Troll ? I thought Mike was very insightful,one of us missed something I guess.

    4. Fred Smith

      Electrical Engineer

      In reply to Sean Rintel

      Thanks for the interesting article.

      Its a bit rich being called reprehensible and sacrilegious for touching on the origins of an evolving term, as briefly as allowed in a 500 word form. The term meme has come a long way since then and is well and truly established as what it is today.


    1. Kristy Schirmer

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Guido Tresoldi

      Bravo Guido!

      Thanks for this article - I get asked all the time what exactly are memes, where do they come from, why do people like them etc. This is a very comprehensive analysis. I hadn't seen the 1905 cat before so thank you for including that. A delicious article, thank you!