This paper is aimed to study how memes have immensely evolved from the time this word was introduced by Dawkins in 1976 to the modern times. The basic essence of this evolution is based upon our increasing use of the internet that has greatly transformed our understanding of memes. Additionally, the widespread use of these internet memes has influenced sectors like marketing, politics and the civil society; in a way no one could have ever imagined. Hence, a distinct discipline in order to study memes and their role in shaping social, political and economic aspects, called Memetics is achieving due development.
The word meme was first introduced by Richard Dawkins in his book, entitled The Selfish Gene. In this book, Dawkins described memes as units of cultural transmission; relating them to genes, the units for genetic transmission. He argued that both these transmissions are similar in a way that they diffuse and spread along their respective transmission lines. However, he also discussed some differences such as the time and mode of transmission. (Dawkins, 1976) Additionally, he argued that while genetic transmission is semi-conservative (.i.e. half of the new information come from the parental unit whereas the other half is synthesized), memetic transmission is conservative (.i.e. passed on without any new additions).
Dawkins, actually shortened this word from a Greek word mimema; which is associated to something that is imitated or copied. Hence, the idea of memes goes back to ancient civilizations since mankind has always transmitted cultural and social aspects. A very simple example of a common meme is that of “The Birthday Song” which is sung by people around the globe and is translated in multiple languages. However, there is no known reason to why people sing this song except for the fact that they have been listening and singing it ever since they were born; it has been transmitted through cultures and reinforcements.
The Selfish Gene describes memes as replicators since they make copies of themselves and spread across a culture. Dawkins argued that the three basic components required by a replicator to be effective include; c opy-fidelity (the validity of the copying process), fecundity (fast rate of copying) and longevity (the more a replicator can divide). It can be seen that all these three factors have been elevated by the advent of internet; which has evolved the internet memes into something more powerful.
Furthermore, the idea of mutations in memes has also been discussed in the afore mentioned text; which says that as genes may be altered through mutations so may be
Modern memes / Internet memes
While content, relativity and creativity of a meme are essential factors in meme making; one of the most crucial factors is the medium of communication for a meme. Memes have been communicated through a vast variety of media over the years. From simple man-to-man communication to print-communications and then through audio (radio) and visual (television) communications; memes have evolved along with their modes of transmission. But the widespread use of internet as a mode of meme-communication has greatly revolutionized meme-making and sharing. The internet has provided a platform to share memes anywhere on the planet in very little time, hence increasing the fecundity of meme transmission. With easy access to information around the globe, c opy-fidelity has also been enhanced along with longevity, since data can now be stored in-definitely. (Heylighen, 1996)
In ancient times, when memes were spread through simple man-to-man communication; the chances of a meme getting extinct were greatly high. This is because the modes of communication were very poor and the alarmingly low number of carries of that particular meme added to it being endangered. Once these carriers would die or stop transmitting the meme, there was no mechanism of retrieving the memes. (HEYLIGHEN, 1993) However, the internet has greatly diminished this problem since the internet provides the most long-term storage properties with the easiest access known to-date.
Additionally, before the use of internet there were a number of barriers and challenges to meme – transmission; including geographical, cultural and linguistic barriers. These barriers were major contributors to the disappearance of memes. But with the use of internet as a mode of transmission, these barriers and challenges have been greatly reduced. The internet now provides a global culture with no geographical limits and new advancements in technology have greatly smoothened the translation process, reducing linguistic barriers. (Heylighen, 1996)
A relevant example to how the internet has elevated meme – transmission is that of chain-letters; a phenomenon that has been experienced by almost anyone who uses social media and communication applications; like Whatsapp and Viber. Chain-letters are messages that are communicated with an additional request (and in some cases threat) to spread the message. Some of these messages also include incentives or rewards (which are mostly non-existent in nature) for those who comply with the request / threat of sharing the message. Once the recipient agrees (either willingly or forcibly) to spread the message, it becomes a classical example of how new technology (including the internet) provides a great platform for the proliferation of memes. (Heylighen, 1996)
Reinforcing this idea in an interview to The Guardian in 2013, Richard Dawkins stated “The internet is a first class ecology for memes to spread”.
Impacts of meme evolution
As discussed in the earlier parts of this text, internet has greatly transformed meme transmission into something much deep-rooted. This has not just enhanced our knowledge of memes but has also taught us how to manipulate this concept for our benefits. Memes are no more, simple cultural transmission elements but are also being effectively used as tools for marketing and social transformations.
On one side, companies and organizations are using memes to market their products/services; while on the other hand memes are being used to enhance political influence. The use of memes to influence the 2010 United States Midterm Elections is a prevailing example of how influential memes can be when it comes to politics and elections. (Ratkiewicz, Conover, & Meiss, 2010)
Therefore, it can be argued that the advent of internet-memes has greatly modernized meme making and sharing. Additionally, internet has made meme creation and proliferation extremely convenient which has led to memes becoming a powerful tool in various segments of the society. Hence, the internet has provided a very suitable ecology for memes to multiply and effectively influence the recipients.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press.
Heylighen, F. (1996). Evolution of Memes on the Network. Vienna / New York: Ars Electronica Catalogue, Ingrid Fischer.
HEYLIGHEN, F. (1993). Selection Criteria for the Evolution of. Proc. 13th Int. Congress on Cybernetics (Association Internat. de Cybernétique, Namur, 524-528.
Ratkiewicz, J., Conover, M., & Meiss, M. (2010). Detecting and Tracking the Spread of Astroturf Memes in Microblog Streams. Indiana, USA: Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, School of Informatics and Computing, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, USA.