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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 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.

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