Rory Cellan-Jones

The meaning of memes

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 1 May 09, 17:04 GMT

On this quiet Friday afternoon before the May Day bank holiday, I've found myself musing on what exactly is meant by "meme". That's because a link is circulating to a rather wonderful chart/website/mashup, which chronicles internet memes.

The timeline on the chart runs from 1976 right up to today, and it lists all kinds of web crazes, fads and phenomena. So in 1993 there is the Cambridge University computer laboratory coffee-pot, supposedly the inspiration for the first webcam. (By the way, I was disappointed when visting the lab recently at its new site to be told that the coffee-pot had been sold on eBay some years before.)

Spool to 1997 and there's the chess match between Gary Kasparov and the IBM Big Blue computer - which, according to the chart, was the biggest web event to date.

1999 brings the Blair Witch Project, described as a "breakthrough use of the web to promote a low-budget indie thriller". It's illustrated with a YouTube clip - but the video-sharing service wasn't born until 2005, which set me wondering just how we used to share video online a decade ago.

More recently, there's an entry on "I Can Has Cheezburger?" (ICHC for short) and lolcats, a web phenomenon that I have never understood. And after reading that "ICHC was instrumental in bringing animal-based image macros and lolspeak into mainstream usage" I am really none the wiser.

And coming right up to date, the most recent meme listed on the chart is Susan Boyle's audition on Britain's Got Talent which, as the world surely knows, became a huge hit on YouTube.

Screengrab of meme timeline

But after enjoying clicking my way along the timeline, I'm not entirely clear how the entries were chosen - or what we mean by a meme. How does it differ, for instance from a "viral", as in "viral video"?

You may remember a few weeks back we had a discussion here about the Today Programme's viral video - and whether it was the genuine article.

In fact, the very first entry on the internet memes chart is meme, linked to the publication of Richard Dawkins "The Selfish Gene" and there is this Wikipedia definition:

"The word 'meme' is a neologism coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins occuring in 'The Selfish Gene' to describe how one might extend Darwinian principles to explain the spread of cultural phenomena. He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (notably religious belief, clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches)."

Some people have told me there is clear difference - a viral is something that is deliberately spread, a meme is an almost biological phenomenon, that just spreads by itself. But that seems to take us back to the viral video argument, where some people were adamant that anything that was promoted by the mainstream media could not be deemed truly viral.

What is clear is that the web is making some ideas - serious and trivial - spread around the globe at an ever faster pace. If the world's online population, in its collective wisdom, decides something is important, we will all know about it pretty quickly.

As anyone who has been online this week will know, fears, facts and fantasies can make their way from Mexico to Manchester faster than a flu virus. Whatever we mean by meme,the internet is a democratising force for ideas. Though, as the internet memes chart shows, an awful lot of those ideas are plain daft.


  • Comment number 1.

    Interesting article - memes have always fascinated me since I first read Dawkins' book. However, I don't understand the rather rabid distinction between a viral and a meme, as I feel that there is a blurry line there since meme's can be injected into the zeitgeist and then will just run away.

    One problem - (in your link) doesn't appear to exist

  • Comment number 2.

    Oh yes, we could do with more wispy muse-blogs over yet another surely fascinating electronic resource. The meme isn't some magical, pseudo-supernatural resource perpetuating itself in similar fashions to biological entities. It's just a craze, a fad, no different in architecture or potency to the crazes of other modern subcultures.

    Yet again, we find this blog concerning itself only with what is popular or fashionable. Eclectic or unusual technology is clearly just too difficult to muse about.

  • Comment number 3.

    A bit lazy, surely the point of a meme is that it is a non physical trait that can pass down through generations.

    This is just a list of things that became popular. Its hardly the same thing.

  • Comment number 4.

    A meme has a property other than simply passing through generations, a meme is subject to Darwinian selection pressures.
    An idea that carries some resonance with those that learn about it, is picked up and carried forward, rather than simply being discarded as irrelevant. What the internet does is to make that idea widely accessible, what happens to it after that is down to selection pressure.

  • Comment number 5.

    I find this rather interesting, as with all the other posts about memes that I've seen on other sites, in that it makes no mention of the sense in which I and the communities I use (primarily Livejournal) understand the term "meme", which is almost always used to describe a quiz, personality test or other post adhering to a given format (usually questions or prompts expecting answers) which gives some insight into the poster's personality. These do then tend to spread like wildfire, or indeed viruses, but I've never seen the term "meme" applied to anything like the viral videos, lolcats or other fads. (In fact, until I saw a similar comment piece on another site, I was under the impression that "meme" was a play on the fact that the quiz or post was about 'me')

    Either all the commentators have missed something, or they have far better things to do with their life than hang around on Livejournal scanning their friendslists for quizzes to tell them what flower they are, or what sort of musical trend they might be...!

  • Comment number 6.

    Surely the Encyclopedia Dramatica (NSFW) which exists to track the internet's most important goings on should be considered a good source for information on memes?

    The entry includes the below points:

    The word meme is a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Originally used to describe packets of cultural information, it was adopted by the internet to describe viral lulz or frunz. Its original meaning is no longer used except by sociology majors. In short, memes are just inside jokes for people who have no friends with whom to have real inside jokes.


    In the real world, the meme is known by its true name, "idea."

    Fairly insightful points IMHO.

    It should perhaps be repeated that visiting ED is a less than perfect idea when at work, hence why I have not included links.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    reforse summed it up nicely. LOLcats, FAIL, Chuck Norris Facts and similar, are memes because they are an idea which inspires others and becomes apart of the culture. Most of the examples in the Dipity timeline are virals. There are some examples which are both (Star Wars Kid, Leave Britney Alone), which are virals that become so parodied and referenced that they become memes. And I can think of at least one example of memes becoming a viral (Pork and Beans).

  • Comment number 9.

    I think the Dipity mashup is mainly about virals (plus vid's that had a big impact on You Tube) rather than memes, as I understand the terms.

    Memes are more about ideas that go on to influence large numbers of people. The term 'Web 2.0' is a meme, as are 'the wisdom of the crowds' (originally a book about economics, but the idea influenced many social websites such as Digg), cloud computing, personalisation, geotagging, the semantic-web (which doesn't yet exist), social bookmarking, social networking, tagging and so on.

    In politics the Blairite 'third way' was a meme in the Labour Party for a while; as was Monetarism and defining MPs as 'dry' or 'wet' Tories during Mrs Thatcher's period in office.
    'Regime Change' was a meme for a while amongst Republicans during G.W. Bush's first term.
    'Sustainable development' is a meme that has been around for a while as has 'Recycle, Repair, Reuse' and 'Renewable Energy'.

    Susan Boyle, The Ninja Cat and most of the other videos named on Dippity are just virals, not memes. However, the extremly annoying 'Rickrolling' craze on You Tube was a meme because it was an idea many people copied, not a single video.

    It could also be argued that disruptive/innovative technologies e.g. the 1st Walkman in the 80s, more recently the iPod and MP3s, caught the publics' imagination because of their potential uses and convenience (memes); their popularity was spread by word-of-mouth and by seeing others using them.

  • Comment number 10.

    I love the chart - shows how much an artifact of a specific place and time a meme can be. I don't think many of the best known internet memes are as long lived as Dawkins expected when he coined the term.


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