What’s In a Meme?

by | Oct 1, 2021

According to Britannica, a meme is a “unit of cultural information spread by imitation.” The Oxford Engish Dictionary says a meme is “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by internet users.”

Below is an example of a meme showing Harrison Ford in the movie “Blade Runner.” Ford’s character is a cop who tracks down synthetic humans and destroys them. This image was shared millions of times within a few days of its creation.


Why is this a meme? First, it spread quickly and widely. Second, it is clever and a bit funny — it combines our frustration of constantly needing to prove we’re not robots on the internet with a cult sci-fi classic about finding robot-like creatures hiding among real humans. Brilliant.

The “Most Interesting Man in the World” character from Dos Equis commercials has been used to create lots of memes. Here’s my favorite:


And, I’d be amiss if I didn’t point out that Chuck Norris jokes are examples of memes as well.

The concept of a meme predates the Internet. The concept and term come from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his groundbreaking 1976 book “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins noted that some ideas replicate and spread through culture similar to how genes spread across generations. Here’s the part of his book where he introduces the concept of a “meme”:

I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged. . . . It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate which leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which 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.

So, the Internet is not required for a meme to spread; it just provides a very effective medium. Here are a few pre-internet memes:

  • School yard clapping games
  • Kilroy Was Here graffiti which dates back to World War II
  • “Where’s the Beef” from a Wendy’s commercial in the 1980s:
  • Use of the word “abracadabra” in relation to magic

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