Griffiths: Making sense of memes

MEMES are strange and misunderstood beasts; the term is often misused, but as they run rampant through the internet and our minds, the concept becomes ever more important to understand.

Jhhn Griffiths

John Griffiths

Merriam-Webster defines the word as “an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture”. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1970s.

It can be a little scary that most of what defines our own consciousness is a series of ideas transmitted from friends and family, as well as mass and social media.

Memes can be very recent, like the idea that maybe as an heiress Gina Rinehart shouldn’t be lecturing the rest of us how to be less poor.

Memes can be relatively modern like the steaming load of pseudo-eastern philosophy dumped into popular consciousness by the “Star Wars” movies.

A lot of memes are very, very old. The ideals of democracy, of justice, have spread like a fire through human minds for millennia.

The theory goes that successful memes get that way because their carriers benefit and outcompete the people who haven’t taken them on board.

The great religions are founded on the rocks of mighty memes we call the Bible, the Koran and the Tripitaka, whose ideas we choose to preserve, and pass on.

There’s an old joke that nerds invented the internet so they could talk to other nerds about “Star Wars”.

Similarly the evolution of the printing press was driven by Gutenberg’s desire to print the Bible and the use of paper made from cloth pulp in Europe was driven by calculations of just how many cows he’d need to slaughter to print it on parchment (40 cows per Bible).

The modern meme as the term is commonly used on the internet is a lot less high minded.

Here’s one I made this week, grab a picture, google meme generator and bob’s your uncle. (whether anyone will be amused by your work or choose to forward it is another matter)


Mostly it’s a short exclamation printed over a loosely related image to hopefully comic effect; if you can drag in a well-worn cultural trope from elsewhere that will give added resonance.

Here in Canberra, the Canmeme Facebook Group have taken global memetic imagery and applied local ideas to amusing effect (albeit having somewhat run out of steam after a barnstorming start).

Sadly, the average netizen will use the term “meme” in complete ignorance of the older meaning, thinking they’re just talking about words on pictures.

1170911_493413067419272_1910931482_nThis is a nicely recursive evolution for a theory on the evolution of ideas.

More worryingly, bright-eyed things who go to social media conferences and collect full houses in buzzword bingo have seen something that people like and want to colonise the space for power and profit.

Normally this is harmless and, only occasionally, regrettable. But professionals are getting better at it. The Greens in particular are churning out a lot of memes that encourage a retweet or Facebook share, even if they’re largely preaching to the choir.

Our minds have had thousands of years to develop defences from this kind of informational warfare (defences loosely known as “how our parents raised us”). But make no mistake, just as the food industry uses mountains of research to assault our tastebuds with sugar, fat and salt, the bright-eyed things are amassing research and tools to insert memes into our minds for their own benefit.

Something to think about next time a friend sends you a funny picture of a cat.

Canmemes can be found at:

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