PR's Blog

January 21, 2010

What is a meme?

Filed under: Memes — Tags: , , — perryrobbin @ 1:13 am

Memes are ubiquitous and uniquely hard to describe. Richard Dawkins, the biological theorist who wrote the influential The Selfish Gene on genetics, evolution and other topics far outside my scope of understanding, originally defined the term. He called it the cultural version of a gene, an explanation of how information spreads throughout a society.

This concise definition, from a Web site that hosts and maintains visibly objectionable content as well as a large catalogue of underground Internet memes, is simply, “a packet of cultural information.”  A key part of a meme is that it replicates, similar in a way to how genes replicate through the reproduction of living organisms. Living organisms, mostly humans, also reproduce memes.

A key difference: genes are reproduced sexually; memes are reproduced through thought and expression. A key similarity: memes, like genes, can change, mutate, as they are replicated, creating variations on a theme and sometimes entirely new memes. Additionally, memes, like genes, require more than one organism to spread.

Pants on the Ground” is an example of a recent, widespread and almost mainstream meme. A meme both you and your parents a are probably aware of. It seems like Hot 93.7 plays a remix of it every day.

All Your Base are Belong to Us” is an old and much more underground meme, not referenced often anymore. But, If I said “somebody set up us the bomb” to some of my friends, there would be a look of understanding on their faces. I would probably get a response along the lines of “main screen turn on” or “for great justice, move every zig.”

Social media spreads, replicates and changes memes faster than at any point in history.

If it was 1995 and you didn’t see “Pants on the Ground” on “American Idol” on Fox, on Tuesday, at 8:00 p.m. (and if “American Idol” was on 15 years ago) you likely wouldn’t see it, unless it got popular enough to bear repeating on late-night shows or maybe the nightly news.

Now? Twitter has thousands upon thousands of tweets about it, 22 more in the minute it took me to type this sentence and go back to copy the link. You have to try to not see the video, not try to see it.

Social media is a powerful tool when it comes to inclusion, to sharing information.

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