What exactly is a meme?

I know it has somethiing to do with starting a cultural phenomenon that is passed on in a manner similar to a gene, or something to that effect. But what exactly separates a meme from a regular trend or language/cultural fad?

As I understand it, a meme is a smaller unit than a trend. For instance, an ad jingle, a specific joke, or, or the habit of calling La Lopez “J-Lo” would all be memes. Advertising in general, the genre of elephant jokes, or celebrity worship would be trends or fads.

IANAs (semiotician – would that be the right discipline?), though. Anyone who understands this better than I, please clarify – the theory is interesting.

I had this beautiful post and my computer ate it, so here we go again.

Here is what I understand of memes: A trend would be if all the fashion designers of the world (or of London) got together and decided that hot neon pink would be “in.” A meme would be more like people all over just deciding to all wear 1920’s flapper hats–a far more organic occurrence.

Also, there is the transmission of a meme. A regular old idea spreads slowly–often there are people years later who say “I never knew that was happening.” A meme spreads incredibly quickly–sometimes near instantaneously. Suddenly everyone is talking and thinking about Zariens when no one had ever heard of them before.

And then there is the more controversial thought–that memes are responsible for those “ideas whose time has come.” Within hours, the US Patent Office receives three patents for something the world hadn’t dreamt of. Or two teams of scientists working independently thousands of miles apart come up with an AIDS vaccine on the same day.

It was first coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene”. I think his original explanation is short enough to excerpt:

Here is the entire chapter 11, which can probably be read in isolation from the rest of the book:


Memes also evolve. For instance, although many people know–or thing they do–what a meme is, the first two replies show that their understanding of the concept is quite different from the original (and from each other’s, for that matter). Since I got it from Dawkins, my idea of it as a unit of culture, is close to his.

Note that it need not spread especially fast and it certainly doesn’t appear simultaneously in several places. That happens generally when the technology evolves so as to make it possible. Memes spread from one source. The first person who wore baggy pants as a fashion statement, started a new meme. Obviously people had worn baggy pants forever, without its being a fashion statement, but when a fashion leader did it, it spread.

I’m not sure how what I said is in conflict with Dawkins – could you expand on that, pls., Hari?

Perhaps I should have said that it seems instantaneous? One person wears the baggy pants, and then everyone seems to be wearing them. There doesn’t seem to be a point where a person comes across the meme and diseminate it–perhaps because memes are sometimes capable of “reproducing” exponetially?

And I will admit that some of my idaes about memes have come from Sci fi–and the authors may have expanded the idea or played around with the concept–ala Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.

I think we have defined meme well, so a slight hijack and question:

What usefulness does meme pose? Seems to me that “behavior” is a discrete enough unit and is what is observed/recorded/talked about. Meme just makes the whole thing more internal and scientisitic, but not scientific. (I’m channelling BF SKinner.)

For what it’s worth, I’m a little skeptical of the concept of a “meme.” Not that they don’t exist – it’s been known for centuries that ideas pass from mind to mind and can infect lots of different people.

But the question comes – using the concept of a “meme,” can we make any observations or predictions that could not have been made previously?

Put simply, a meme is an idea that (perhaps among other things) acts in such a way as to make copies of itself.

luc, treating ideas like organisms works fairly well in certain situations. it helps explain why some classes of ideas have underlying themes although no one could possibly have come along and decided that should be.

urban legends are a good example, most of them have a moral of some sort but its doubtful some expert sat down and wrote them all this way.

it is more likely that whenever someone hears a story some of them retell it and some don’t. when people retell stories they often alter it slightly. if a certain alteration (mutation) of a story makes it more likely to be passed on then that version of the story will have a larger share of the population. versions that no one retells won’t. just like genes and reproduction. looking at it like genes helps you to understand just who decided certain things about stories or beliefs… and shows that probobly no one really did, never did someone sit down and decide alot of children stories should be about animals, it just turned out that way because that was the stories people retold, and later the stories people mimicked to write new stories. for example.

Well, it’s just as easy to say “Ideas can spread and evolve like viruses.”


Except that the concept of “genes” is much more powerful. For example, it allows us to predict that the child of a father with type AB blood and a mother with type O blood will be either Type A or Type B but not AB and not O.

In other words, you can make exact predictions that can be measured and tested.

Sure, but to invoke such a metaphor, there’s no need (IMHO) to create a new term. It’s enough to say that ideas can spread and evolve just like viruses.

Mangetout hit the nail on the head, memes are the reproductive unit of “idea-space”.

This is what we know about the reproductive unit of genetic-space: it is called the gene. Gene survival is what drives evolution. Long necks didn’t survive in giraffes – the gene for long-necks survived in the gene-pool of giraffe-genetic-space.

So,… predictions we might make and therefore test? Memes will propagate according to their fitness to survive. “Useful” ideas, that tend to be shared, will tend to “out-survive” less “useful” ideas. But notice, even these less “useful” ideas will survive in some niche. This corresponds exactly with gene diversification – neither genes nor memes need to be widely accepted, all that is required is that they survive (and all be it, like all things temporarily) in some population. Consider the survival of “mainstream” ideas (in the Western World, for example, the idea of democracy) and compare it to the survival of less “mainstream” ideas (e.g. Western governments are conspiring lizard people) – both have their “space”, both are memes.

[Read Dawkins’ excellent The Selfish Gene for a fuller explanation]

And long after posting (blame the hamsters), can I add, lucwarm that I know you understand what a meme is, so my post might have come across somewhat patronizing, but I do hope it shows that Dawkins’ "metaphor " is stronger than the mere commonality, between memes and genes, of reproduction.

Granted, you delineate splendidly where that metaphor ceases to be valid, but don’t you at least think the “idea” of memes, be it new or old, deserves a name?

The predictions you make aren’t particularly exact. Moreover, it seems to me that they don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.


I’ve read the book (more than once in fact) and I agree that it’s excellent. As for his treatment of “memes,” I am skeptical for the reasons stated earlier.

Rereading twikster’s first post, I have to apologize; his/her examples are all genuine memes.

The crucial thing about memes is that, like genes, they somehow seem to have a life of their own. And some memes have properties that enhance their own survival. for example, a meme that enhances tolerance leaves you open for other memes, one of which is a meme for intolerance, while a meme for intolerance insulates you from other memes, by its very nature.

Here is another example. Although people sometimes do convert from one religion to another (I do not include here apostates adopting another religion), it is relatively rare. This is because almost all religions include memes (BTW, I consider a relgion to be a meme complex, not a single meme) that invalorate all other religions and beliefs and therefore serve to isolate the believer from other beliefs. But it is well known that cults spread most readily among people who had no religious beliefs, since they were not so insulated. It is one argument for raising children with some religious beliefs.

FWIW, I have no religious beliefs and taught my children none, but I raise the point as legitimate.

Thus protecting their own existence, but furthermore, many religions include a sharing imperative - which could be argued to represent the reproductive function of the meme.

Of course, if one carries the analogy of “genetic-space” to that of “idea-space”, one can just simply state that “ideas” are the reproductive unit of “idea-space” (probably, concept is a better unit than idea, though), and they are subject to a selective process, much as a genotype is subject to natural selection. Since all ideas are essentially subject to the same selective processes which determines if they will persist (a “good” idea) or not (a "bad’ idea), “meme” simply becomes redundant with “good idea”.

However, genes are not indepedent entities which can be picked and chosen at will by natural selection. They are part of the whole genomic package. The genotype persists, and individual genes are along for the ride. And even then, only those genes which are expressed will have any affect on future selections.

Ideas (or concepts), on the other hand, can be picked through independently, and independently rejected or accepted by each and every individual. They thus become subject to a process more akin to artificial selection than natural selection. We breed culture and concepts more than they independently evolve. In such a context, I don’t see that calling a concept a “meme” adds anything at all to our understanding of how societies and cultures evolve. Substitute “concept” for “meme”, and you have the same process, with the same explanation.

of course you don’t really NEED a word for a meme… but you don’t need that many words strictly.

my toaster can be a bread cooker machine if it really wants it to be, but its a useful enough concept to give it it’s own word.

“ideas can spread and evolve just like viruses.”

is 38 letters

“meme” is 4. that is useful enough in its own right.

It seems to me that you’re kinda comparing apples and oranges here.

After all, if I walked up to my buddy and simply said “Meme,” it wouldn’t really convey the same thing as “ideas can spread and evolve just like viruses.”