When coming across the chapter in Gleick titled “Into the Meme Pool,” my mind immediately jumped to the captioned photos and videos blasted across the internet in succession, each changing slightly in form to the next. I did not expect the term “meme” that we commonly use now in pop culture to have first been coined by a biologist. According to Gleick, Richard Dawkins defined a meme as “‘a bodiless replicator'” (312). Dawkins considered memes to be catchphrases, tunes, ideas and images. The memes we see today fit well into this definition crafted in 1976, typically taking the form of a formatted image or video with captioning that is changed to the discretion of each repeater. According to an MIT Technology Review, the modern meme is “a variant of an image based on a common theme that has spread widely on the internet.”
Dawkins described the journey of memes as the replication of “themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, is called imitation” (312). However, this form of imitation didn’t have the negative connotation of cheap copying — it is instead viewed as a collaboration. With each imitation, the meme evolves. As with the genes that form our lives, memes seek to repeat and evolve, stretching through the human story. The internet memes that have become so integrated into our culture (to the point where they reached the clutches of Facebook moms) are an example of how information and communication has evolved with technology.
Memes are comedic in nature, an inside joke for the internet. Some jokes are more exclusive than others. All memes are built upon a common understanding of the internet community. Memes are a testament to the strange culture and humor that has developed mainly with the younger generations that grew parallel to the internet itself.
According to this article by Brady Gavin, the first meme was a dancing baby used to demonstrate the impressive movement of a new software.
The MIT Technology Review describes how Gianluca Stringhini and colleagues at the University College London developed an algorithm to track how memes go viral across the internet. Their algorithm used perceptual hashing or pHashing to identify similar images: memes. The group found that for a meme to be most successful, one must mass produce various forms of the meme — similar to how genes “evolve through mutation, reproduction, and selection.”
However, not all memes are innocent jokes. As the article discusses, some memes are used to perpetuate racism, and these memes can go horribly viral — as a virus does. These memes seem to act more like a vicious virus, seeking to harm for the sake of its continuity.
In retrospect, it is unsurprising that the pop culture concept of “meme” derived from the observation of a biologist. Internet memes seek to replicate and evolve as genes do. Memes thrive from their replication and evolution, and they have the best rate of survival when mass produced with a spectrum of competitive variants. Memes may be the expression of the internet’s genes, in a constant state of modification, adapting to the ever-changing terrain of the web.