What\’s a \”Meme,\” Really?

Lately I’ve been reading a lot, and writing some, about memes. It’s an interesting concept, but I’m a bit discomforted by the way that many writers seem to accept memes as a fact, rather than as a useful analogy. This worries me. When analogies get taken too literally they tend to get pushed too far – at which point they fall apart. This can appear to discredit or devalue the usefulness of the entire analogy. I don’t want that to happen with the “meme” analogy – I think it’s too potentially useful to people who care about communication.

Therefore, I want to consider for a minute the definition of “meme”…

According to dictionary.com, a meme is: “an idea considered as a replicator, esp. with the connotation that memes parasitize people into propagating them much as viruses do. “

In other words, memes are ideas that replicate themselves like genes or viruses. They spread and mutate throughout a community or across communities, through communication channels such as speech, writing, art, graffiti, or the internet.

Of course, the larger issue to keep in mind is that memes are not a fact. Rather, the meme concept is a popular analogy. Every analogy has its uses and limitations. Analogies exist to bridge the gap between areas that we already know and have experienced to new, unfamiliar territory. However, analogies are only comparisons, not equations. If you try to stretch an analogy past the point that it fits reality, it will inevitably tear.

People tend to react negatively when a high-profile analogy or model that is generally touted as fact is revealed to have reached the limit of its applicability to reality. We’ve seen this happen in psychology – how many publicly credible psychologists are talking about “penis envy” these days?

Here’s how it works: Eventually, zealots of a particular analogy rabidly expound on that analogy in ways that clearly conflict with reality. Ridicule and embarrassment ensue. The validity of the entire analogy is publicly questioned, and generally devalued. When that happens, people who value their public appearance of credibility tend to distance themselves from the maligned analogy. They quickly develop new analogies and models – which may or may not be as useful as the discredited ones. Ultimately, this hobbles the progress of inquiry. The “experts” have to keep starting over from scratch in order to maintain their public image, because it’s hard for them to openly salvage much from a discredited analogy or model. It all has to be repackaged in the current garb of credibility.

I actually like the meme analogy/model very much. I think it has the potential to be an incredibly useful tool to help us understand how communication and learning happen – which can, in turn, help us to put those uniquely human abilities to better use, and avoid some of the tragedies that occur when communication goes awry or breaks down. I’d hate for us to lose the value of this particular line of inquiry just because someday “meme” might become a dirty word due to blatant abuse by zealots.

Therefore with any discussion of memes, I’d ask meme enthusiasts to keep the word “like” in mind. In the meme analogy/model, ideas are viewed as behaving LIKE genes or viruses in many ways. It’s not that they are physical entities with physical traits. It’s just a comparison. It’s a bridge to expand our collective inquiry into new territory. Don’t confuse it with the real world.

Remember that the meme analogy attempts to apply principles and ideas from science and medicine (specifically physics, biology, and epidemiology) to non-physical entities (ideas). Inevitably, this will not be a perfect fit, because ideas are not physical entities. Ideas are intangible, yet they have tangible effects which conceivably could be tracked and quantified. This study might enhance how people think, learn, and communicate – and ultimately the actions we take in the real world.

All this reminds me of my initial frustration with the basic economics course I took in college. From the first day of course, I was rankled by the fact that every principle of economics presented in the textbook was preface with the caveat “all else being equal.” Hey, my logical mind screamed, all else is NEVER equal! Well, yeah. Every economic transaction and system is unique; there are infinite permutations and exceptions. Still, if I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to accept “all else being equal,” I never would have learned some very useful economic principles that generally do play out in the real world.

So use the meme analogy to your heart’s content. Play with it, analyze it, explore it, challenge it. Just don’t mistake it for reality. Preserve its usefulness by respecting its limits.

7 thoughts on What\’s a \”Meme,\” Really?

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  1. Seems to me that a meme, as you define it would have a tendency to become “conventional wisdom” or even an “urban legend”. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

  2. Well, “conventional wisdom” and “urban legends” are certainly types of information that can be transmitted in a meme-like way. However, as I understand it, the concept of a meme does not depend on the nature, quality, or credibility of the information being transmitted. It simply refers to the mechanism of transmission.

    Memes can also be practical, culturally significant, or otherwise important. For example, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other major spiritual paths or philosophies could be considered memes because they spread in meme-like ways. Similarly with impressionist painting and the graphic novel. Similarly with rock & roll music and the proliferation of mathematics.

    Just because some examples of memes are silly (like urban legends) or harmful (such as rationalizations for genocide) does not mean that the meme concept is necessarily frivolous. That’s like deriding the entire concept of transportation simply because a broken tricycle does not meet your standards.

    More background: The Lifecycle of Memes

    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  3. I liked your article, and I think your point of view is long overdue and underepresented. interestingly, the idea/concept of a “meme” is itself a meme and can be analyzed as such. If it works like a typical new disease, then I expect it will rapidly infect a high percentage of exposed people. Some time later the general population will acquire immunity to many variants of the “meme” paradigm. So what you described is the natural and possibly innescapable order of things. Your attempt at innoculating the your audience population with an example of a flawed variant of the “meme” concept and how it can be deleterious is admirable. You’ve already established and promoted a symbiotic relationship between your conception of a meme and your other ideas by virtue of sharing your endoresment. I’d like to see you develop this further by consideration of the specific and long term affects of innoculating your readers to provide a competitive advantage over non readers. That is why we read your blog isn’t it?

    p.s. I like your conclusions and think you have sound logic, but some of your statements seemed innacurate in tangental ways that didn’t directly affect your argument. “memes are not a fact” seems akin to saying “evolution is not a fact” or even “gravity is not a fact”. While technically none of these are facts since they all require an inductive leap of faith that can’t be proved, I think your distinction is a difference that makes no difference. Also an analogy is a useful way of explaining something unfamiliar by using a familiar example. Memes themeselves are not analogies. The desease model of a meme is an analogy. the disease model of a meme IS LIMITED to describing the propagation of a meme through a population of meme cariers (people usually). Memes behave in some very non disease like ways. The disease analogy does indead break down and fail to describe such occurances as meme complexes wherein memes act exclusively on other memes (diseases that only affect other diseases?) and benificial memes (diseases that help the host?). The proper classification of a meme is as a theory of information and communication science.

  4. From reading Susan Blackmore’s meme book (The Meme Machine) a few years ago, and some others, the definition of meme that stuck in my head was (my words): “a unit of cultural information that tries to replicate itself.”

    Of course, “tries” is anthropomorphizing, but it fits the way we think of viral infections; there seems to be a goal. I worry that all the talk of paradigms and facts (“Do memes really exist?”) could obscure one of the most promising aspects of the meme meme: a useful way of describing how a song gets stuck in your head, how a slang word becomes ubiquitous, and why low-carb diets are rampant.

  5. First i’d like say i appreciate being able to subscribe to a webfeed for these comments. Thanks.

    I think i disagree with the main article where it tries to play down the usefuness of the meme concept by stating it is only an analogy. Just because memes are types of ideas, doesn’t make them any less real than genes or viruses. DNA is only code, the matter through which it is transmitted is less important, it is fundamentally an abstract thing – shape which does the business. The ability to replicate is the key, and whether this is done by biological mechanics, computer file copy or human communications is secondary to the concept of a large number of hosts inadvertently helping an abstract ‘shape’ or idea to increase in numbers and spread geographically, A meme is a thing, not a metaphor.

    Having said this, I believe Amy is accurately describing a process which I recognise. A useful word, phrase or idea is coined by experts in a particular field, and after a period of time it escapes from the specialised field it was invented for, and gets reported, used misused and eventually redefined by the world at large. This happens with IT jargon all the time, and gets to be really annoying because we need clear and precise terminology in order to communicate effectively and that terminlogy keeps getting rendered useless through dilution and common misconception. If people are already starting to use the word ‘meme’ as a pretentious substitute for any old ‘idea’, then I fear it may already be too late fo this one, it’s pretty much a one way process.

  6. For what it’s worth, the concept (and name) of a “meme” was conceptualized originally by Richard Dawkins in his seminal work, The Selfish Gene, as an extension of evolutionary genetic theory (particularly “gene-centric” evolution, the focus of the book). One of the key points in his discussion of memes, which is slightly tangential and comprises a full chapter, is this: That the nature of ideas in a communicating society like our own is such that the attributes of genes (which he had just spent an entire book describing) can not only be shown to parallel those of ideas (or “memes”), but that, in fact, they ARE the same.

    Not the same in a physical sense, obviously, but on the other hand, the exact definition of a gene — physically — is not 100% clear either. Just as Dawkins spent most of the book trying to demonstrate the idea that genes are, by the impetus of natural selection, basically self-governing, self-interested, self-controlling entities in and of themselves (and human beings or other organisms are basically just their clothing), he extends it in the chapter on memes by saying the same — that rather than the traditional paradigm of “people have ideas, people transmit ideas, people control ideas,” the view of “ideas use people to get around; better ideas last longer; poor ideas die off in a competitive “market”; etc.” is just as valid, and indeed, for many purposes, may be more useful or accurate.

    The exact degree of credence or faith you place in the word or concept “meme,” as described in this way, is of course up to you; but for what it’s worth, what you seem to be saying is more or less antithetical to Dawkins’s own conception of it.

    I can’t believe I just wrote all that… I sound like a bad academic.

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