The differences and similarities of memes and Internet memes

The differences and similarities of memes and Internet memes

Richard Dawkins first coined the word meme in his book, The Selfish Gene published in 1976.  Basically, Dawkins posed the idea that memes are the cultural version of genes—they are the transmission of ideas and information, cultural norms and societal expectations.  For example, a baby is never taught that folding his arms signifies anger, but he sees others in his life crossing their arms in anger and therefore recognizes what it means in his society.  Essentially, Dawkins' definition of memes puts ideas and actions into cultural contexts; without memes, humans wouldn’t know, most often subconsciously, that anything meant anything.

In addition, Dawkins said that memes are essentially equivalent to Darwin’s evolutionary theory—only the most productive ideas survive.  However, the replication of memes is not as transparent as the production of genes. Oftentimes we cannot trace the originator of the meme like we can in genetics.  For example, in genetics, we know that a chromosome codes for a specific trait. But in memetics, we do not, and will never know, exactly who thought it would be best to put a salad fork on the left side of a plate.  In this way, too, memes are not as perfectly replicated as genes.  Memes can be amalgamations of two ideas, reactions against older memes, better, worse or essentially different from the meme that is being copied. 

In some ways, the coining of the term Internet meme fits with Dawkins’ original idea and in some ways it doesn’t.  First of all, Internet memes certainly are more easily understood than Dawkins’ idea.  I have been looking at the new meme of Princess Beatrice’s hat (you know, the god awful one with the bow that stood straight up) from the recent Royal Wedding being put on different politicians’ heads or with cats crawling out of it. This example follows Dawkins’ theory in that we don’t know where the first picture of Beatrice’s hat removed from its original context came from, but it certainly has spread throughout the Internet.  In addition, we know that the original meme was not perfectly replicated; in fact, that is not the intention in Internet memes.  Each replicator must take the original idea and change it for Internet memes to become sensations.

However, in some ways, Internet memes are not aligned with Dawkins' ideas. Originators of Internet memes seem to know what they are doing—I am putting Beatrice’s hat on a cat; I bet everyone will want to copy me—which does not follow the idea of cultural natural selection.  I could be wrong on this point; the creators could be less self-referential than this and just think they are putting a hat on a cat.  In addition, memes are generally considered to be a subconscious reproduction of an idea or behavior.  Internet memes are always very purposeful—and, when they begin to pick up steam, replicators consciously decide to add to the viral nature of the original meme concept.     

Even though Internet memes may be a subversion of Richard Dawkin’s original idea, he probably doesn’t mind too much. Dawkins himself has kind of given up on hypothesizing about memes, too, leaving much of the research to others. Also, the very act of surfing the Internet for Internet memes is a meme in itself—people see their friends and family surfing for Internet memes, so they do it, too. 

Further reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins#Meme