Have Internet memes lost their meaning?

Professor Richard Dawkins in London, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009. (AP Photo/Akira Suemori)
Professor Richard Dawkins in London, Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009. (AP Photo/Akira Suemori)

It seems like we’re all mini-meme factories. There are the stories packaged as BuzzFeed memes, the endlessly-looping Vines and Instagrams, the reaction GIFs – basically anything that has been specifically designed and packaged to get you to spread it to your friends can be considered a meme.

As everyone and anyone gets into the meme business, the memes are losing their meaning. They no longer transmit intelligent ideas – they only transmit banality.

Memes, it’s too bad what’s happened to you.

Really, this is a shame. Why? Because the entire concept of the meme was actually an extraordinarily clever idea from the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to describe how and why ideas travel between humans. This was back in 1976, mind you, long before the Internet and Lolcat photos ever took off. Back then, what Dawkins had in mind were the little snippets of human culture that seemed to survive for centuries. As examples, Dawkins pointed to ideas, catch-phrases, styles in fashion, even the pop music song that you can’t get out of your head – they are all memes.

Dawkins explained memes as being similar to genes in that they would replicate over generations. The best-performing memes would soon dominate the meme pool as “culture”. Some would achieve short-term success, while others would propagate for thousands of years.

Flash forward nearly 40 years, and even Richard Dawkins has lost it over memes. By now, if you’re a student of the Internet meme, you’ve probably seen the bizarre video that Dawkins created for the marketing and advertising audience in Cannes – a scholarly lecture about the origination of memes that rapidly devolved into a day-glo trip to the far reaches of the human mind. Memes are mutations of the mind. Indeed. You will not be able to get “mutations of the mind” out of your head for days.

Which perhaps tells you all you need to know about why memes are losing their meaning. They’ve been co-opted by the marketing and advertising industry as a way of getting their messages into your head. Now that the Internet is rivaling TV and radio and print as the best way to implant ideas into your head, it’s no surprise that the Web has emerged as a sort of primordial soup in which all of those memes fighting for survival. Google has gotten into the act, with advice to marketers and creative agencies on how to create a meme with meaning these days. Researchers are studying how and why ideas travel from mind to mind. More and more, it’s looking like the only way to get your message heard on the Internet is to transform it into a meme that is both catchy and easily replicated over time.

What’s even scarier – for those who care about the future of intelligent discourse, anyway – is that you have memes making their way into areas of serious endeavor that used to be historically meme-proof. Take politics, for example. Increasingly, the easiest way to post your reaction to any political issue is to post a reaction GIF. The easiest way to show us which political candidate you support is to set up a Tumblr and post photos with silly captions.

The problem with all this is that it trivializes the big idea, and in the process, trivializes who we are as humans.

Which brings us back to the evolutionary biology argument for memes first proposed by Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” in 1976. Well, there was another little intellectual twist to his argument – he suggested that it was quite possible that humans were just idea survival machines, constantly being tweaked and changed over time to ensure the maximum survivability of ideas. In short, it’s memes that rule us, not humans that rule the memes. We may think we’re being clever when we share something amusing with our friends, but it’s actually the memes who have figured out how to program humans for maximum idea propagation. They are “selfish” in that they care only about their own survival, not ours.

Try wrapping your head around that one.

So, what does it mean for the “survival of the fittest” of memes when some of the most popular memes these days are things like funny animals, silly faces and absurdist things like the Y U No meme? Maybe Dawkins was right. Maybe the only way ideas can survive anymore is to turn us all into a bunch of dithering idiots.

But there is a way out – in the chapter of The Selfish Gene in which he discusses memes, Dawkins ends on a hopeful note: “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines… we have the power to turn against our creators… we can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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