By Sophie Becker
What do you meme?
Memes. They’re hot.
But why? Have you ever stopped to think about what we really mean when we talk about a meme?
Today I did just that.
Whilst the more naive amongst us may reply with a definition along the lines of “a funny picture with a caption that your one desperately annoying friend (me) tags in you in incessantly on Instagram”, there is actually far far more to it.
The official definition is ‘an idea, behaviour, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture’. As aspiring creators of contagious ideas and behaviours, there’s a lot we can learn from the humble meme – internet or otherwise. By this definition, memes have been around since the beginning of humanity.
The word ‘meme’ was first coined by scientist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene as ‘a unit of cultural transmission’, taken from the Greek root mim- meaning ‘that which is replicated or imitated’. Fittingly, the word meme is great meme. Since it’s birth in 1976 the concept of a meme has spread like the plague from human to human, becoming an integral part of our everyday language and a phenomenon of the internet era.
Dawkins suggested that ideas are like living organisms that breed and mutate. The basis of human culture, they’re born initially in the brain and spread through a process similar to Darwinian selection – through mutation and competition – until only the stickiest and most replaceable of ideas survive. A piece of viral content spreads quite literally like a virus. Our job as creatives is to birth ideas that reign supreme in the survival of the fittest.
In Dawkins eyes, Socrates and Leonardo da Vinci are the greatest meme generators – not some nerdy kid sitting glued to Reddit in his basement. These meme lords have propagated ideas that have stood the most impressive test of time. Singled out by Dawkins as a ‘virus of the mind’, religion can be considered the greatest meme of all. Thousands of years later and humanity’s still banging on about it.
Internet memes have generated so many of the twenty-first century’s most bizarre and widespread sub-cultures and crazes. Their power is irrefutable. They are born from unusual hijackings of original ideas or rather a ’mutation in the mind’ as Dawkins calls it. A mutation in the mind is creativity. Our creative devices and lateral thinking techniques are all designed to spark this not-so-magical mutation – that radical new fusion of existing concepts.
Good memes all have one thing in common: they’re sticky – ideas good at getting themselves copied from brain to brain. They couldn’t be considered a meme otherwise. They’d just be another piece of forgettable content. To become a meme, a piece of content has to be simple enough to be consumed in seconds thanks to our diminishing attention spans. It has to be unexpected and fresh enough to keep our interest. They must refer back to something relatable – something already within our consciousness. Memes must touch on an instantly recognisable and meaningful truth. They must connect on an emotional level and fit in perfectly with the story of our daily life.
Then, and only then, will something become a ‘good meme’ – whether it’s a yodelling boy in Walmart or Jesus changing water into wine. Memes are the ultimate marker of SUCCES. We should all be aiming for memes in our creative lives. Long live the memes.