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Joe is a writer, bad musician, broadcasting type guy, and all around human. He writes things for The Hudsucker, and anywhere else that will publish him. And twitter @slothraps

Memes: A Viscous Definition

I’m the type of person who observes a lot. Or I try to. But when I do so, I often times hear Andre the Giant in the back of my head pointing at people and saying “I don’t think that means what you think it means.” For instance, I follow a Bill Hader appreciation blog on Tumblr, and the blogger was putting together GIF collages of different SNL cast members and titling the post things like “Kristen Wig Meme 1/14”, and it got me thinking, that that’s not what my definition of meme is.


Source: Memecreator.org

Back in middle school I spent a lot of time on the internet. I didn’t have a lot of friends, nor that much time to spend with them what with homework and bedtimes and piano lessons and so on. So my spare time was spent trying to find funny things on the World Wide Web, as the kids say. Soon I discovered the Meme, and came to an understanding of what it was to me. What I understood the meme to be was an image or idea that had a basic framework with trimmings that were changed by people who wanted to create content in those frameworks. Things such as Bad Advice Dog, Good Guy Greg, Courage Wolf, Bachelor Frog, Creepy Pasta, and so on and so forth. Basically, a meme was something funny that had many different iterations that all held to the same rules, that by all accounts were pretty easy to know based on their titles. That was my understanding.

Fast forward to two years ago, sophomore year of college: I am taking a class called Argument and Analysis. The professor was this young German guy who was really more excited in class discussion of lofty ideas than talking about argument theory. We called him Ralph. Ralph at some point and for some reason brought up that none of us would even know how to identify a meme without Richard Dawkins who originally coined the term. Turns out what Dawkins meant when he created the term meme was not congruous with my understanding of the term, exactly.

Source: Oxford University Press

Richard Dawkins is a biologist and in his book The Selfish Gene, talked about how ideas can sometimes be expressed a lot like genes, in that they are passed down from generation to generation with minimal changes and either survive or don’t based off of natural selection. So to Dawkins memes are things like ideas, melodies, religion, behaviors, styles, and so on.

So in reality, the internet meme is different than a regular meme. The internet meme changes a lot more quickly and is expressed in a lot of different ways. Whereas a Dawkins meme is like the evolution of ideas, the internet meme is like the intelligent design of ideas. Internet memes are created (mostly these days I think) with the intention of being memes. It’s like hair dye. My hair is red normally. It will grow and grow and always be red, but I could get black hair dye if I wanted. I think internet memes are kind of like that. They take ideas and behaviors that we know, and express them in a different way. Take the Socially Awkward Penguin meme, it expresses familiar feelings of social anxiety and sets it in the context of humor. We could see social anxiety as a socially constructed meme in the Dawkins sense. We only feel anxious in socially awkward situations because on some sociological subconscious level we feel that we should, based off of things that we have seen and heard.

So what about the Bill Hader blogger and my definition of memes before my research into the world of Dawkins? I think we are both right and wrong. The idea of a meme is in itself a meme, meaning that over time it changes and is expressed differently, just like genes. Whereas my initial reaction to the Bill Hader blogger was that they were wrong bar none, now I just view it as a different way that the meme of meme is being expressed. Much like with evolution with genes, it’s neither a good or bad thing, I will just let nature (or society in the case of memes) decide if the Bill Hader blogger’s definition will be viable moving forward.

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