Friday, December 30, 2005

The Meme-ing of Life

When I post a meme or run across one on someone else’s blog, someone inevitably asks “WTF is a ‘meme’?” You can google “meme” (rhymes with 'dream', not 'see me') and it will lead you to a lot of very jargon-laden psuedo-scientific sites that are complete gibberish to the average blogger, including me. The word itself was created by Richard Dawkins, a controversial zoologist and science writer, who asserts that genes are the basic building block of evolution and that survival of the individual or the species is unimportant as long as the gene survives.

As best I understand it, the concept of memes (which is a meme in itself) is an analogy between human culture and evolutionary biology. Memes are the ideas that transmit behavior and concepts from one person to another. Like genes, beneficial memes get passed along and dangerous memes get eliminated or countered by other memes. My favorite meme is the Golden Rule. Nothing in our biology makes us follow it, but it is such a universal truth that all major religions have some variation of it.

A meme can be any idea, large or small. Capitalism, Nazi-ism, and the infield fly rule are all memes. Political parties are organized by people that believe a common set of memes. Organized religions are constantly splitting apart from disputes over which memes are most important. Many memes are directly contradictory and require people to pick and choose which ones to believe. Does haste make waste or is there no time like the present? Pro-choice or pro-life, evolution or creationism, and toilet paper over or under are all competing memes. I leave it to you to come up with other examples.

In its most general sense, a meme can be a catch-phrase, or a popular song, or a style of dress. Any idea can be expressed as a meme. Because of it’s trendy intellectual cachet, the very concept of memes is an increasingly popular meme.

Somehow in the blogging world, the word “meme” has come to encompass all these little chain-letter-like quizzes and tests and writing assignments that get passed around. The best memes don’t even need to be passed around. People see a “100 Things About Me” or a “Thursday Thirteen” or “Half-Nekkid Thursday” post and say, “I should do that.” Ergo, the meme has been passed. There is even a guy with a site that lists dozens of popular memes. Judging by the ones I run across, his list is just the tip of the iceberg.

Using the biology analogy, some memes are spread by using “tagging” as a transmission vector. The recipient is only obligated to follow-up on the tag out of a sense of loyalty or duty or curiosity. The pass-along memes that are too hard or too personal or not clever enough will eventually die out. Unfortunately, at the current rate of meme generation, in a year or two, half of all blogposts will be people responding to being tagged by a meme.

I hope I have cleared things up in my very unrigorous, completely untechnical way. So, everytime you run across someone asking about memes, post a comment linking back to this post. And spread this meme.

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HRH Courtney, Queen of Everything said...

I think I will post this link often.

trusty getto said...

Excellent explanation. Whenever I have a question like this, I go to, which says a meme is:

A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.

Mooselet said...

Hey, thanks for that!! I'd kind of figured it was a similiar to a chain letter, or chain e-mail, where you fill in your own answers. Now I know it's much more, plus now I know how to pronounce it. Even better.

Happy New Year everyone!

kontan said...

i dont mind doing them, but i really hate tagging others.

Anonymous said...

Happy 2006!!

Suburban Turmoil said...

I tried to read this. Honestly, I tried. But I got to the second paragraph and my brain exploded. Sorry.

puppytoes said...

well done! i'm totally impressed and i thank you for your great explanation. really. i do. and i meme it, too! (seriously, thanks... it was actually very interesting and helpful! i feel almost smart now. almost) : )