In 1976, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins proposed a new word — “meme”:
“I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’”
For a while, this word was restricted to academic circles, but the word has since mutated to describe those internet phenomena we all know and love: Chewing-gum for the brain, like pictures of cats and videos of people running into walls that we can mindlessly macerate until flavourless and grey.
“This is what the Internet is all about, people. A killer song, a stupid meme, a nostalgic throwback to 2001, and, most important, bites of dumb hilarity that come in 30-second bursts.”
Huffington Post on the Harlem Shake, February 2013
If you’ve seen the Harlem Shake (which you no doubt have) or Insanity Wolf you have probably assumed that memes are small bits of mental fluff for prepubescent 4chan nerds with exactly zero relevance to the real world, and you are exactly zero percent right. Let’s put it this way: even your Mum probably knows about Gangnam style. Remember the Crazy Frog? So do all of your friends. Memes get everywhere (people are still making Harlem Shake videos) and someone is always going to benefit from it. There is even debate about whether religions could classify as memes. Take Christianity, for example: a little bite of culture that spread rapidly. For a time, the Church was the most influential power in the world. That is the power of memes.
Meme, as defined by Dawkins, is a portmanteau of ‘gene’ and ‘mimesis’. Mimesis, as an integral part of philosophical study, has had a long history, starting back as early as Aristotle and Plato. When we talk Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy (oooo) ‘mimesis’ means realism or naturalism, as in a representation of the actual appearance of something and the search for the ultimate distillation of a thing’s true nature. Memes, whilst not Platonic forms, do represent one kind of reality: us and what is on our collective cultural mind.
This idea of ‘mime’ as a representation or a reflection of ‘ultimate truth’ has always been a pretty big deal in philosophy, even now. One of the particular big guns in the study of Mimesis in Literary Crit is/was a guy called Auerbach, who wrote a huge anthology of basically every important book published before him. What he was interested in was the Mimetic values of these works: the way true everyday life was represented in every seminal text ever, even when the books involved sea monsters and witches and stuff.
Arguably, this is exactly what memes still do today. They represent and reflect the truest form of our everyday. Memes are a crystallisation of stereotyping and Zeitgeist and as such are an excellent way of measuring the, as it were, social temperature. So when Russia bans some memes, it’s an attempt to smother an entirely valid form of social commentary. How would we feel if Steve Bell’s ongoing depiction of David Cameron as a condom was banned, due to the fact that Cameron is (some might say) not actually a condom? Or if Charlie Hebdo was forcibly closed down by the French government following the recent uproar?
Trying to pull apart memes in order to ‘explain’ how they work is just murdering for dissection, plus the resulting analysis would be lame/irrelevant/totally missing the point. How on earth am I ever going to logically explain Doge to you? The whole point is that you already know.
Instead, I’ll show you how they evolve, becoming more and more self-referential, recursive and self-aware (or, ‘meta’, as it were) and how as soon as they try and be used for commercial purposes they’re instantly robbed of their vigour. Behold:
Gen 1. (First use of Fry Meme)
The popularity of the Fry meme became so great that Comedy Central actually included it in their adverts and opening sequence for their 7th series of Futurama:
It was met with hatred and furor. It was, after all, “not funny anymore”.
Anyway, back to Russia. Surely we, as a human race, should have learnt by now that banning something only ever serves to make it far more popular. A banned book list is basically a recommended reading list for anyone even vaguely left leaning. After all, there are far easier ways to kill a meme: Commercialise it.
In the short academic life of Memetics – the study of memes – it has been established [here, et al.] that this is how a Meme replicates:
What this means is that a meme is coded into a ‘vector’, such as a message or image. A potential host decodes this meme by reading the message or seeing the image, and might then go on to become a new host. If they do, then they pass the message on or mutate it slightly (like putting a new caption on an already familiar meme picture), and thus a meme spreads like an infection. Perhaps this will remind you, as it should, of the term ‘viral’. What this means is that for a meme to spread it requires the desire of the host to retransmit the meme, for whatever reason that might be. Nothing kills the desire to retransmit like making something commercial.
There are now a myriad of webpages teaching young budding PRites how to harness the power of memes in viral marketing. Now, occasionally you do get creative, powerful ad campaigns that spread like wildfire (consider the John Lewis Christmas ad, which has somehow become a staple part of Advent) but mostly advertisers just kill stuff stone dead. (C.f here and here and here and here and oh god here ) Seeing an ad campaign that includes memes is like seeing your teacher using slang to “get down with the homies”. You’re just going to throw shade/roll your eyes/pity him for his mid-life crisis. The main propagators of memes – the ‘yout’ – are fickle, lightning-fast and merciless. Most ad campaigners can barely keep up: they only just got onto ‘wavey’ (oh please, so 2014).
So what can we take away from all this? The next time you see a new meme you can smugly remember a bit of Plato and maybe you’ll try to ask yourself what the meme is doing, why someone has created it. But more importantly, the next time someone tries to sell you hippie-aspirational Levi’s or Kony 2012 remember the best way to kill The Revolution: Don’t censor it, just get it televised.