What Is A Meme, Really? Reconsidering The Richard Dawkins Definition In 2022
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the August 2022 issue of Meme Insider, a magazine covering memes and other internet phenomena. You can subscribe here.
On the June 28th, 2022 episode of "Jeopardy!" two out of three contestants failed to correctly answer the “Final Jeopardy” clue, which is the last and most important clue. It went like this:
"Partly because it was a monosyllable, this word was chosen as 'a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission.'"
The right answer was: “What is a meme?”
Armand Sanchez, a high school teacher from San Jose, California and Emma Henke, a writer from Madison, Wisconsin, lost a lot of money because they didn’t write that.
The definition comes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' 1976 book "The Selfish Gene" and it has become a part of internet culture orthodoxy. But to Dawkins, who was writing before the internet was even invented, a meme is any unit of cultural transmission. Memes work like genes and spread through culture the way genes spread through a population. Doge is a meme, but so are catchy tunes, a way of making pots and a fashion style. Memes replicate.
A lot of people think this is a very good definition of what a meme is, but it is not a perfect one. It isn’t wrong of course, because talking about culture isn't like talking about math. In arithmetic, two and two is four regardless of who you happen to be; but my idea of a meme is always going to be different than your idea of a meme--and that’s fine.
Arguably, the point of defining things when you’re talking about culture is less to get a “right” or “authoritative” answer than it is to make a tool that can help you understand our world. The definition of a meme has to be useful for people who are trying to figure out internet culture (which, nowadays, is all culture). Calling something a meme and calling something else “not a meme” needs to mean something and help you understand.
What the "Jeopardy!" question means to me is that Dawkins' definition isn’t quite useful enough and needs an update: if two out of three people can’t draw the line between his definition and memes (which are a cultural phenomenon three out of three people know about) then something is wrong.
This is not an argument for the older, limited definition of memes as image macros with funny text. That might be what most of us picture in our heads when we hear the word, but it’s clear our meme culture was always bigger and better than just that: there are videos, catchphrases, challenges, texts and so many other things which have become memes.
What the image macro definition gets right, however, is this: memes belong to the internet. Something is going on with an internet meme that is very different from what’s going on with a catchy tune, a way of building arches, or a fashion style (all of which are examples Dawkins uses). Under Dawkins' definition, everything is a meme and so it isn’t really a useful definition.
Here's an analogy: you could say breakfast cereal, chicken noodle soup and a fruit smoothie are all soups. They are all made of one food liquefied inside of another food. Similarly, a style of painting, a chord progression and Distracted Boyfriend are all units of cultural transmission/replication and therefore memes (under Dawkins’ definition). But anybody experiencing breakfast cereal, warm soup, or a smoothie knows those things are very different, and to understand them you need to put them in different categories. The same is true of somebody looking at a Van Gogh painting, listening to the blues and reposting Distracted Boyfriend. This doesn’t mean ignoring all the similarities, but it means treating each one as its own thing.
Dawkins wrote his definition before the internet, so it makes sense that it’s not exactly tailored to internet memes. That’s one of the problems with it: people know memes as an internet phenomenon and both "The Selfish Gene" and that Final Jeopardy clue don’t even have the word “internet” in them. While the fundamentals of cultural transmission between pre- and post-internet culture may be the same, the internet hits different than a page in a book, just as a page in a book hits different than a story the traveling bard tells you.
Saying a meme is just an image macro is wrong, but we should at least add a little phrase to the end of Dawkins' definition, to make it a little more specific than just any unit of cultural transmission: “a meme is a unit of cultural transmission on the internet.”
But there are a few other ways in which the definition of “meme” could be made more useful. Dawkins structures the entire thing around an analogy to genetics, but the transmission of genes arguably isn’t the best comparison for cultural transmission. We don’t make art the same way we make other humans.
In a 2013 talk at the Saatchi & Saatchi New Director Showcase, Richard Dawkins revised his definition, saying that unlike genes, which mutate randomly and introduce new traits into offspring, cultural replicators “are altered deliberately by human creativity.” A meme doesn’t come about by random chance, the way it is when the slot machine of sperm and egg decides how long your tongue will be. It is somebody’s decision.
It is your decision. Memes aren’t just altered by human creativity, but they are also consumed and shared according to creative human choices. The people who look at memes are just as important (if not more so) than the people who actually make memes.
People don’t choose which genes they pass on or receive, but people do choose which memes they like. Our consumption and creation of memes are not about “imitation” at all, but about invention--very often, it is about self-invention: we choose to become an eboy, a catgirl, or a "Morbius" stan. Those choices may seem trivial, but people also choose to become socialists or anti-vaxxers because of memes they like. And, lately, people choose to kill kids in school shootings or overthrow governments because of memes.
The Dawkins comparison also breaks down because unlike genes, you can change your memes. You may only get one genotype in your life, but we can each carry several memeotypes, often simultaneously. I like Communist s***posters, but I also like memes about hunting and fishing. I like surreal memes, but I also enjoy following Instagram influencers who vacation in exotic places. These memotypes change all the time. I am a significantly different human and consume significantly different content than I did in 2017. I’d like to think I’m a happier and better person because of it.
Whatever the wild tide of the algorithm washes up onto the beach of my scroll--be it a kitten, a schizopost, or a campaign ad--it tells me something about my soul, and about the world I am trying to figure out a good way to live in. The way I respond to whatever meme I encounter tells me something about myself and who I am turning into. It is all my choice.
Choice is important in any other kind of cultural transmission as well. A book becomes influential because a creative person makes choices about their work, then institutions like publishing houses or universities make choices about how that work circulates and then people make choices about how they interpret that work (or whether they read it at all).
Memes, in a way that’s different from books, amplify the importance of that third group: the public which makes choices. A meme won’t succeed if we don’t like, comment and subscribe. We help create memes in a way readers can’t help create books because the book is already done by the time you pick it up. In the case of memes, the second group--institutions--are still quite-important platforms, publications, governments and algorithms, all of which have a hand in how memes reach us.
So, adding on more words: “a meme is a unit of cultural transmission on the internet that is altered deliberately and creatively by artists, institutions and audiences.”
"Meme” will be the name that sticks, and it will likely be the main thing Dawkins is remembered for thirty years from now, even though his definition is really just a half-page in a book that’s about a bunch of other things.
But it’s worth considering why that definition became important and the work it does for memes as a field.
Dawkins derived the word “meme” from ancient Greek and French. He phrased it as a scientific-sounding theory of everything, backed up not just by the rigorously-tested truth of evolution and Darwin, but by the flourishing of two foreign languages. His definition gave “meme” a kind of academic credential, it was like the word came out of the page with a Ph.D. It also became a kind of bit, because memes are a pretty unserious and unacademic thing.
But we don't need a word with a Ph.D. We need to demystify and de-irony memes and online culture because from the perspective of the big social media platforms and governments, online culture is just another part of a society’s machinery: memes move ideas and people around the same way that a highway or a school system does. And, just like with school curricula and infrastructure, interested parties (e.g.: Zuck, Musk, Putin, the CIA, Taylor Lorenz, Quandale Dingle, the Minions--essentially everybody) are competing to shape the meme market and spin it to make money, defeat their enemies, or advance their beliefs.
If we want memes to do good in the world, we've got to actively post, like, and think about them in realistic and productive ways. Dawkins’ definition is too abstract to help do that work. Memes don’t need to sound ironic, deep, or intellectual because they are important in the ways that concrete and rain are important: in online culture, they make things grow and make things stand.
And to really look at memes, we need to have a definition that three out of three people can connect to their everyday online lives.
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