GM RANT incoming.

What is not a meme?

You know those pictures with text under them that fly like locusts across the internet on imgur, facebook and twitter? Those are not memes despite what a large pool of random people with zero understanding of the origin of the word might say.

Image from

They may be a memetic construct and my show an excellent real world example of some of what Dawkins was trying to communicate with his memetic theory, but they are not a meme any more than “/” is a back slash. (For anyone confused by that statement, “/” is a forward slash or just slash and has been for centuries… “\” is a back slash.)

Like the misuse of the term backslash by the media (if I hear h t t p colon back slash back slash one more time…), the coopting of the technical term meme by the media is a classic example of what happens when such a term is misunderstood and is used because it “sounds technical” or “sounds cool”.

So what is a meme?

The term was coined by Richard Dawkins as a way of encapsulating and abstracting information patterns and studying their behavior, spread and mutation in the same way a biologist might study the behavior, spread and mutation of a bacteria by studying its genes.

Basically a meme is what you get when you break down a belief system, idea or the like into its most basic parts or patterns. Just like genes are the building block and pattern for organic life, memes are the building blocks and patterns for systems of belief and culture.

So for example while “Christianity” is not a meme, “belief in an unseen world” is. Christianity is a construct of many memes that form together to create a cultural belief system. As that series of memes are spread from person to person and culture to culture, parts of that construct change and mutate, some memes take hold, some do not and the result is two different constructs both recognizably “Christianity” but with possibly fundamentally different ideas forming the construct.

The study of these memes and how they replicate, mutate and spread is referred to as “memetics”. So to extend our example, studying why when the “Christianity” construct spread to a new culture, it gave rise to the memetic construct “predestination” that was added to the larger construct and while it spread to a different culture, constructs like “transubstantiation” were lost entirely.

Note, I refer to “predestination” and “transubstantiation” as constructs in the above example and not memes as they themselves are made up of different memes and memetic constructs. Some (including often myself) would refer to them from time to time as memes but if being fully technical they are not themselves memes.

Also note that I use Christianity in the above examples not because memetics has anything specific to do with the subject but solely because it is a subject most people can understand and have some frame of reference on. Memetics has no “opinion” on the subject of religion, despite the fact that the creator of the term has used the concepts to argue against religion and is known as an activist for Atheism.

The quotes I use throughout these examples are not to denote any belief or lack there of but to specifically differentiate the memetic construct from the religion itself or the specific beliefs. I will often use quotes to encapsulate memes or memetic constructs as a convention.

So in short, when you hear me use the word meme, rest assured I am not referring to a picture with a catchy caption… if I want to refer to a picture with a catchy caption, I will probably call it a picture with a catchy caption or maybe image macro.


For more information on memetics and a decent starting list of primary references, take a look at the Principia Cybernetica page on memes.


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