Is anyone else going meme crazy these days? Maybe it’s just some strange conflation of meme-talk here at the Utne Reader office, but if I hear (or read or sniff) one more reference to a meme, I’m going to drink everyone’s milkshakes, and then make all the straws into my new bicycle.
I know: I should pity the meme. These are heady times for a term coined in 1976. Back when evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins gave memes a name in his book The Selfish Gene, there was no world wide web to speed along cultural transmission. Memes, as Dawkins defined them, are self-propagating cultural phenomena such as “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” He likened them to genes. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” Dawkins explains how Darwinian principles, like natural selection, govern that evolution.
These days, all your memes are belong to us, and by us I mean the Internets, by which I mean the web. Linguistic and media-driven memes in particular spread swiftly online. If you don’t pay attention (see: if you have anything else to do during the day except troll online), you can miss a whole meme-elution. Not being up to meme-speed = awkward social encounters. Picture yourself standing in a room, tepidly smiling as everyone riffs about some walrus that lost its bucket. Getting the jokes in the late-night monologue? Forget it.
“One week: That’s how much time an Internet meme needs to propagate, become its own opposite, and then finally collapse back in on itself,” Christopher Beam writes on Slate. Beam based his observation on the lifecycle of the wildly popular “Barack Obama is your new bicycle” meme.
That well-known meme all started with a website of the same name, and on August 5 (drum roll, please) Gotham published a Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle book. Website creator and Wired contributing editor Matthew Honan isn’t the only meme-generator to get a book deal lately. This March, Gawker reported that Random House paid at least $350,000 for the right to publish Stuff White People Like, based on (you guessed it!) the website of the same name.
All this makes me wish Chuck Norris would step in and deliver some round-house regulation. Memes, old-fashioned memes, naturally-occurring memes, have a lot to tell us about how culture stalls and grows. Rewarding senseless Internet memes, however, with two things our society likes very much—cash and publicity—will only motivate imitators. If Internet memes become a popularity contest with a cash reward (exploiting a lowest-common-denominator urge to be in on the joke)—are they still memes? Out in the blogosphere, you already can spot people discussing how to propagate preferred memes. In the inevitable march of the Internet memes, I just hope the best viral marketer wins.