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For Noobs and long-time users alike: A Primer on Memetics: what you might not know

Last posted Jan 20, 2010 at 07:10PM EST. Added Jan 14, 2010 at 12:47PM EST
4 posts from 4 users

Prepare for a long one.

This post is meant to address a couple of different but related issues happening in the site.

The Submissions backlog is getting HUGE. This is not out of neglect, but is an effect of the information provided in the submissions. There are some that contain a lot of information, but not really the right kind of information.

The other issue has to do with Meme Research threads. There are currently (as usual) some new users who are seeking to have discussions about memetics. At the same time, there are also some users who have been here for a long time, but most ask “is this a meme” rather than asking the kinds of questions that will reveal whether or not something is a meme.

From rewatching this Susan Blackmore video, I decided that it would benefit the community to explain some of the core principals of memetics and how they apply to the Internet Memes we discuss on this site.

A meme is made up of a collection of varying instances. The classic analogy from biology is a gene, but you could almost use the analogy of an organism.

An Internet Meme, as we’ve come to define it here, could be seen as a family within the larger concept of memes. Specific Internet Memes like “All Your Base” or “Over 9000” could be considered species, while each instance of those memes could be considered an individual within that species.

Each individual is varied from the next. They show similarities to other members of their species, but each has unique mutations that may or may not lead to the evolution of another sub-species (submeme).

Now, in trying to figure out whether or not something is a meme, you should be looking for behaviors that could be described as evolutionary conditions.

Among all the instances of the meme, is there a struggle to survive? Is their some sort of competition involved that would prevent the meme from growing?

With an Internet meme, yes, there are. These conditions are usually factors of the habitat (memetic hubs: online communities where memes replicate).

For a meme to be more than a “flash in the pan” event, each new instance must both inherit whatever features of it’s parent instance that made it attention-getting in the first place, and also contain a mutation that makes it at least equally as interesting as the prior instance. Based on this, there is natural selection shaping the meme.

So when you ask “is it a meme” you should be looking for three things:

Variation: Many different instance of the meme that have been created by many different people after each came in contact with a prior instance of the meme.

Selection: What is it about the meme that makes the act of creating a new instance a contagious behavior among people who participate in the meme? What factors work against the meme’s chances of replicating?

Heredity: What are the similarities from one instance of the meme to the next? This should be some sort of recontextualization other than mere fan-art based on a popular movie. There should be a specific formula that is unique to the internet, a different context that would not naturally arise from merely witnessing the source material.

I hope this clears some things up.

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