Written by: Shivangana Chaturvedi || Graphics by: Khushi Arora
According to Webster’s Dictionary, an internet meme is an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users, often with slight variations. Internet memes dominate our social media platforms, ranging from funny animals such as Grumpy Cat to more recent cultural icons like Beyoncé. At first impression, internet memes are mindless entertainment. In actuality, they are complex cultural objects. Plenty of academic articles discuss different cultural aspects of the internet meme, from origins and definitions, to digitally preserving and curating their history. In fact, internet memes carry great cultural significance in our modern world. They play a role in understanding contemporary society and are an important reflection for a generation who has come of age with the internet in an unstable world with an even more uncertain future. Memes also are changing the way we relate and communicate with each other and increasing the influence of social media on our lives. In order to understand the cultural impact of internet memes on our modern society, we must trace their origins from the beginning to their current version.
The influence of memes is deeply ingrained and extremely multi-faceted in nature. However, if it had to be broadly classified, it would probably tabulate as following –
Dawkins and the Origin of Memes –
Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, created and is the first to use the term “meme” in scholarly discussion. Deriving from the ancient Greek word “mimema,” Dawkins defines a meme as an “idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Dawkins goes on to define memes as cultural transmissions that, like genes, replicate and mutate with each transmission between people and over generations (The Selfish Gene, University Press, 1976, pp. 249–250). Naturally, a definition this broad denotes that many things within our culture can be memes, and, in fact, many have been spread and transformed across generations of humans. The “Where’s the Beef?” lady from the 1984 Wendy’s campaign is a meme, as is the “Have a Nice Day” smiley face. As society grows and changes, the memes grow and change alongside it, with the latest incarnation or evolution of Dawkins’ definition taking the form of the internet meme. Since memes are naturally selected from the cultural environment there is little room for us as an “individual” in a vast cultural evolutionary process that we do not control. Memetics appears to suggest that humans are biological robots fighting for the survival of their culture and DNA. This implies free will and consciousness are an illusion, and the self is only a complex collection of memes that are copied from ones’ cultural environment.
The Discursive Field of Meme World –
The uptick in vibrant popular discourse about memes in an era increasingly defined by Internet communication is not coincidental. While memes were conceptualized long before the digital era, the unique features of the Internet turned their diffusion into a ubiquitous and highly visible routine. Coined by a biologist, the term meme has been widely adopted (and disputed) in many disciplines, including psychology, philosophy, anthropology, folklore, and linguistics. For the most part, however, it was utterly ignored in the field of communication.
Evolution and Growth –
Until the twenty‐first century, mass communication researchers felt comfortable overlooking memes. As units that propagate gradually through interpersonal contact, they were considered unsuitable for exploring content that is transmitted simultaneously from a single institutional source to the masses. But this is no longer the case in an era of blurring boundaries between interpersonal and mass, professional and amateur, bottom‐up and top‐down communications. In a time marked by a convergence of media platforms when content flows swiftly from one medium to another, memes have become more relevant than ever to communication scholarship.
Implications and Impacts
As with natural selection, the meme concept has shaken the foundations of theology since the concept suggests we are products of our environment instead of being created as a part of a grand divine scheme, and of course, Richard Dawkins is a famous atheist. Being an evolutionary biologist, he had great difficulty accepting the Christian belief that the book of Genesis was a literal factual account of the creation of the earth. Myself, being from a Christian background and an American originally from Mississippi, I remember the emotional anti-evolution views of people around me. Fundamentalist preaches in the deep south believe that the King James Version of the Bible is the “sacred law” and every word is the truth. As I heard a preacher once said: “It is as if the scriptures printed in the book were faxed down from God”. As an adult, I have accepted that natural selection happens.
The meme is natural for studying the Internet and digital culture. Memetic behavior is not novel, but its scale, scope, and global visibility in contemporary digital environments are unprecedented. In this hyper‐memetic era, user‐driven circulation of copies and derivatives is a prevalent logic, aptly puts it: “if you don’t spread, you are dead.” Copies become, in this sense, more important than the “original”: They are the raison d’etre of digital communication. Memes, it turns out, far from being trivial or unimportant, afford us an entry point into thinking about communities, solidarity, performance, practice, and meaning. They can teach us about the ways that norms are created and sustained and how they function to organize communal behavior.