What is a Meme

Memetics is rapidly becoming a discipline in its own right. Many web-sites are being devoted to the study of memetics, and new e-papers are appearing every day. With this in mind, I want to step back and have another look at what it is we are talking about. What is a meme?

In the first section of this small e-paper, I’ll get back to basics and will offer a tangible definition of a meme. I will then move on to the next section and ask “what can we do with our knowledge of memes?”

What is a Meme?

Richard Dawkins first came up with the idea of a meme in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”. Essentially, memes are ideas that evolve according to the same principles that govern biological evolution. Think about all the ideas that you have in your head right now. They are all memes, and they all came from somewhere. Some of them MemeScout

 will have come from friends and some will have come from the internet or television. Examples of memes are musical tunes, jokes, trends, fashions, catch phrases, and car designs. Now, the memes that inhabit your mind are in competition with all the other memes in the memepool (the collection of all existing memes). This means that they are all competing to get themselves copied into other people’s minds. Some of these memes do quite well. Every time you whistle your favorite tune or utter a useful catch phrase, you are facilitating the spread of those memes. Every time you wear something that is “in fashion” you are helping the idea of that fashion enter other people’s minds. Consider the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, or the “Happy Birthday” song. These are ideas that inhabit our minds and have been very successful at replicating. Not only have these memes found their way into literally millions of minds, they have also managed to leave copies of themselves on paper, in books, on audiotape, on compact disks, and in computer hard-drives (Silby 2000).

There is a limited amount of memetic storage space on this planet, so only the best memes manage to implant themselves. Memes that are good at replicating tend to leave more copies of themselves in minds and in other mediums such as books. Memes that are not so good at replicating tend to die out. We can imagine what sorts of memes have become extinct. Ancient songs that were once sung and never written down are one example. Another example is the many stories that were once told but have since slipped into oblivion. A Story is a vast collection of memes that have come to rely on each other for replication. Such a structure is known as a memeplex. Stories are memeplexes that are in direct competition with other memeplexes. If a story replicates through story getting told and read by people, then it will survive. If it stops getting read, it will become extinct. Libraries are full of memetic fossils in the form of books that contain a multitude of ideas that are never looked at (Silby 2000).

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