1. Let’s look at what a meme actually is. Most of us have gotten used to this word as a descriptor for viral (in the non-killing your computer sense) internet activities, usually self-revelatory in purpose. But the term is actually rooted in sociocultural theory, specifically in the work of Richard Dawkins, who coined the term in 1976. In keeping with my theme of popular knowledge making, let’s turn to Wikipedia: “A meme (pronounced /miːm/) comprises a unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices; such units or elements transmit from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. The etymology of the term relates to the Greek word mimema for mimic. Memes act as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.” So then, a meme is to culture what a gene is to the body, loosely. They can manifest in music, writing, in-group codes, etc. Dawkins explains his choice of word to describe this cultural gene thus: “We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘ Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds like ‘gene.’ I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate ’mimeme’ to meme” (Dawkins qtd in Blackmore, The Meme Machine 6).
2. With this in mind, what about internet memes? In what ways do they function as traditional memes (which phrase is itself a bit paradoxical, as the nature of memes is to always be in flux)? In what ways do they diverge? Why do some people gleefully participate in them? Why do some people hate memes as well as the people who participate in them? (and is there an analogue for this in “traditional” memes?) Why are some people deeply ambivalent about them but can’t say why? These are some guiding questions that will take us through points 3-25.
3. Internet memes are predicated on narcissism and solipsism, some argue. Most memes ask for specific information or information in specific formats that relate to the identity (perceived by self and others, depending on the meme) of the person participating in meme-making. But one does not do a meme and keep it to oneself. One shares with one’s friends, some of whom may be “real life” friends and some of whom may only be known through the internet (“do internet friends count as real life friends?” is a meme for another day). So memes are inherently social; they are tools not just for self-knowledge, but also for shared community knowledge. In this way, they are relatively useful tools to know facets of one’s friends that may have otherwise remained clouded in mystery. But it goes beyond this. . .
There are no rules for this meme. Indeed, I wouldn’t call it a meme so much as a meta-meme. The exigence for this note is the flurry of criticism levied at the oh so popular “25 things” meme on facebook. Claire Suddath, in a small editorial in Time magazine lampoons this particular meme and the writing it produces as “stupid,” “not insightful,” counter-productive to the goals of corporate capitalism (though she doesn’t understand it in this way because she is so caught up in the system herself [thanks to Peter Fontaine for pointing this out]), and “oversharing.” I am purposefully loosely quoting and not citing correctly because she rips 25 random things from friends, friends of friends, etc , without giving a lick of credit, presumably because as “lay writers,” their ownership of their words, ideas, and facts about themselves, does not hold. Or maybe because since it is on Facebook, the owner of these words is now Facebook itself. A triumph of corporate virtual communities controlling knowledge making. Knowledge making? Can I really make the argument that knowledge is being made in these memes? Yep. Sure can, and here I go: