Memes and Their Role in a Developing Culture

Kyla Giffin | A Cup of Dry Ice

Pepe the Frog, Doge, “Charlie Bit Me,” the “Success!” baby: these, and other internet entities that have seemed to grab the world by its axis, may come from different corners of the worldwide web, but have one thing in common: The Selfish Gene.


In 1976, there arose a new word to describe such sensations that would remain relevant more than forty years later: “meme,” derived from the Greek “mimeme,” which describes something that can be copied. Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, is responsible for this revolutionary idea.

As defined by Dawkins, the meme is “a unit of cultural transmission”–basically, the psychological form of a gene–travelling from person to person through imitation, with variations and mutations, like any physical replicating gene, each one having a certain appeal to our deepest psychological needs. In this case, one can group the whole of internet memes, including the “What in tarnation?” variations, with the Adidas trend among women, as well as the very belief in a higher power.

Memes, then, can start as any idea. But how do they catch on? What makes them appeal to our deepest psychological needs? On what points can we compare the three examples I gave above? Dawkins attributes meme success to three different factors: “longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity.” This simply means: how long the meme lasts as a psychological virus in a society or culture, how fast it spreads, as well as its ability to lead to new ideas, and how well or how easily it can be imitated.

This analytical approach can be used toward the very idea of internet memes. Longevity–they have tightened their grip on the internet for years, even making their way into everyday conversations; fecundity–memes spread quickly, and one meme can turn into many different variations, such as the Kermit the Frog meme, in which the “Me” and “Me to me” lines constantly change, though still keeping the same effect; copying-fidelity–internet memes are easy to understand, and they are copied and shared in copious amounts. Internet memes are a meme in themselves.

The role of memes in our society, as previously stated, extends beyond a good laugh while scrolling through social media feeds. But what place, then, do they occupy?

Credit: The Huffington Post

Memes, as compared to viruses and genes by Dawkins, can be inferred to exist as ways for human history to be present as time passes, or ways for ideas to travel among and between cultures in the present, or even as things that lead to inferences and conclusions about human evolution and behavior.

In an evolving society, memes are evolving with us, whether it is through making their way to the internet, seeing greater discontinuities, or becoming more universal. They are proving, not just to be an important part in our communication and relatability with one another, but a great source of entertainment. Not to mention, the internet is currently spitting out memes, and there’s no stopping them.

Embrace the memes, and brace yourself for them.

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