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meme, memetic

For me, the word “meme” is basically a synonym for “idea”, but with emphasis on the fact that ideas are transmitted from person to person. It is analogous to the biological term “gene”. The analogy can be used to form other words, such as the adjective “memetic”, “of memes”, corresponding to “genetic”.

The word was originally coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Here's his definition, along with the logic behind the choice of word.

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

Additional examples and other related information can be found in the essays listed under memes.

* * *

There's one very important thing about memes I forgot to mention. Memes, like genes, are selfish—they exist and propagate not for our benefit, but for their own. Here's how Dawkins put it.

What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.

The fact that memes are selfish may be just a consequence of the fact that memes are replicators, but I thought I'd mention it anyway, since it's very much a part of how I think about them.

* * *

The word “meme” is commonplace now, but with a meaning that's a tiny subset of the true meaning. A funny picture or picture element or phrase or phrase template (snowclone) that people like to copy and reuse is definitely a meme, but memes can be so much more than that! For one thing, memes don't have to have such a rigid structure. You can get the idea “pie in the face” from any picture of anyone getting hit with a pie; there doesn't have to be a single canonical image. For another, memes don't have to be transmitted via pictures; pictures just work especially well because vision is such a powerful channel. (That's why a picture is worth a thousand words!) Most importantly, memes don't have to be copied because they're funny (or compelling, or advantageous to themselves), they can also be copied because they're useful! There are memes for how to change a flat tire, memes for how to make an omelet, memes for all kinds of good things. Funny pictures are just one particular kind of viral meme.

The essays Memes on the Internet and Antiviral Memes are relevant here.


  See Also

  Another View (Free Time)
  Classification of Knowledge
  Do Words Control Thought?
  Feedback (Superorganisms)
  Good, The
  Legal Stuff
  Memes vs. Ideas
  Memetic Engineering
  Mind, The
  On Zombies
  Positive and Negative
  Some Memes (Rubik's Cube)
  Some Memes (Tempest)
  Too Much Is Eventually Enough

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