Q&A: What is a meme?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, you talkin' to a Meme?

Q: Hi AWC, can you explain what exactly a “meme” is? I’m sick of kids laughing at me.

A: We can provide an explanation, but that might not stop kids laughing at you.

Q: Okay, deal.

A: Great.

Q: First, let’s just start with how it’s pronounced. Is it “me-me” or “meem”?

A: It’s “meem” – rhymes with scream. Can you guess when the term was first coined?

Q: Hmmm, well it’s the internet, so maybe the late 1990s?

A: Nope. 1976.

Q: Huh?

A: The famous British zoologist Richard Dawkins came up with the term “meme” back then in his book, The Selfish Gene. In fact, the name “meme” was chosen to complement the word “gene”.

Q: Why “meme”?

A: It comes from the Greek word “mimema” – meaning imitation.

Q: Oh, so that’s where we get “mimes” from?

A: No, mime artists like Marcel Marceau were accidentally created in a lab by French scientists in 1947 while attempting to combine striped shirts, white face paint and red flowers in an invisible box. But yes, that’s where the word comes from.

Q: And “mimic”?

A: Same Greek root word.

Q: So what was Dawkins’ definition of a “meme”?

A: He saw it as a unit of cultural transmission – a concept, fashion or behaviour that could spread from person to person. He compared memes to genes in that they are both packets of information passed on by people – but memes are cultural rather than biological.

Q: So anything can be a meme if I copy it from someone else?

A: Only if it gains widespread traction. Dawkins saw it as similar to a “gene pool” in that you would have a “meme pool” and the concepts and behaviours within it would undergo the same Darwinian “survival of the fittest” conditions. The memes that were retained and widely transmitted were the strongest, dominant ones. Inferior memes would eventually die out.

Q: Do you have examples?

A: Well, from a language point of view, catchphrases or slang words are perfect examples. As we’ve explored many times on this very column, certain words or phrases become popular due to many people imitating them.

Q: So it’s really just about trends and what’s fashionable?

A: Essentially. A “meme” is that concept which is imitated. In Dawkins’ words themselves, it’s anything that “goes viral”. Even the phrase, “to go viral” is a meme!

Q: Okay, so can we now address the funny internet picture in the room?

A: Ahhh, yes. So when most people these days think of memes, they’re thinking of “internet memes”. They’re not entirely different, in that they also “go viral” but they specifically take the form of an image often with chunky text on top.

Q: So an internet meme is ANY image with words pasted over it?

A: Again, not any image. They need to be widely understood or recognised. So, a particular screengrab or types of images, often combined with a style of text. They work like visual idioms. They may not make sense on face value, but most people immediately understand what they mean in context.

Q: Examples?

A: “LOLcats” is a group of memes where you’ll see a cute picture of a cat usually combined with poor sentence structure (cats can haz bad grammar). Others can be more specific, such as the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme – a particular image of a boyfriend watching another woman walk by while his girlfriend gives him a cold stare. Each new iteration of that meme captions the three parties in a different way.

Q: Oh, I love that meme!

A: So you might be the “boyfriend”, the passing girl is “that meme” and the upset girlfriend is all the other memes that you are ignoring. Get it?

Q: Yep. More examples please!

A: Well, there are many. From Popcorn-eating Michael Jackson to Condescending Willy Wonka, Trollface, Doge, Spiderman pointing back at Spiderman and many Spongebob Squarepants images and captions. They’re constantly evolving, just like any trend or language.

Q: Hey, Gene Wilder played Willy Wonka. And a meme is like a wilder gene!

A: Haha, clever.

Q: What about “rickrolling” – is that a meme?

A: Ah, well yes. The “bait and switch” of clicking a link or playing a video and suddenly having Rick Astley’s 1987 hit Never Gonna Give You Up interrupt you IS a meme – but more in the original Dawkins sense. It started early 2007 based on a similar gag called “duckrolling”, and fits more as a concept rather than a single image format – yet only exists because of the internet. So, it’s an internet “meme” rather than an “internet meme”. Make sense?

Q: Yeah, I know what you meme. Hahahahahaa.

A: Hilarious.

Q: So, what’s the difference between an internet meme and a GIF?

A: Not a lot. Typically an internet meme will be defined as a static image, rather than animated like a GIF. Both can go viral however, and the most popular GIFs often get labelled as memes.

Q: Interesting stuff. I just have one more question for you.

A: Sure, what?

Q: Never gonna give you up! Never gonna let you down! Never gonna run around and desert you…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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