I love internet memes and included a few in my TEDx talk a few years ago. The term ‘meme’ comes from Richard Dawkins who coined the term in the 1970s:
But trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept?
Memes aren’t things that you necessarily want to find engaging or persuasive. They’re kind of parasitic on the human mind:
Dawkins’ memes include everything from ideas, songs, and religious ideals to pottery fads. Like genes, memes mutate and evolve, competing for a limited resource—namely, our attention. Memes are, in Dawkins’ view, viruses of the mind—infectious. The successful ones grow exponentially, like a super flu. While memes are sometimes malignant (hellfire and faith, for atheist Dawkins), sometimes benign (catchy songs), and sometimes terrible for our genes (abstinence), memes do not have conscious motives. But still, he claims, memes parasitize us and drive us.
Dawkins doesn’t like the use of the word ‘meme’ to refer to what we see on the internet:
According to Dawkins, what sets Internet memes apart is how they are created. “Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity,” he explained in a recent video released by the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. He seems to think that the fact that Internet memes are engineered to go viral, rather than evolving by way of natural selection, is a salient difference that distinguishes from other memes—which is arguable, since what catches fire on the Internet can be as much a product of luck as any unexpected mutation.
So… why should we care?
While entertaining bored office workers seems harmless enough, there is something troubling about a multi-million dollar company using our minds as petri dishes in which to grow its ideas. I began to wonder if Dawkins was right—if the term meme is really being hijacked, rather than mindlessly evolving like bacteria. The idea of memes “forces you to recognize that we humans are not entirely the center of the universe where information is concerned—we’re vehicles and not necessarily in charge,” said James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, when I spoke to him on the phone. “It’s a humbling thing.”
It is indeed a humbling thing, but one that a the study of Philosphy prepares you for, particularly Stoicism. Your mind is the one thing you can control, so be careful out there on the internet, reader.
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