Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Do-Re-Meme

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have seen a LOT of zombie memes. Whether shared by a friend, like this one,




or stumbled upon on my own (my arduous research includes a great deal of time looking for and at zombies on the internet),


the variety and sheer prevalence of zombie themed memes is truly impressive. The extensive popularity of these memes, which has ballooned in recent years just like everything else associated with our favorite undead flesh-eaters, however, is in many ways no less impressive than the apparent universality of memes themselves. There seems to be a meme for everything. I mean everything:

Dog Shampoo

Monster Trucks

Underwater Basket Weaving

For the memes above, I did a Google image search for the first three things that popped into my head (my brain is a special, special place) with the word "meme" and got multiple hits for each one. There are even memes about memes.


Like zombies, the meme seems to be a phenomenon that is particularly well suited (perfectly suited, really) for this specific cultural moment. Given the irrefutable "now-ness" of both forms, the zombie and the meme, perhaps analyzing the ways they intersect can help us gain a better understanding of what it is about each that allows them to resonate so deeply (not that all memes are zombies are all that"deep," but you get my point).


Doesn't believe in god...
or trimming his eyebrows
So, first, what the hell is a meme? I mean, we've all seen them, hundreds of them probably, but what exactly is a meme? This question is only slightly easier to answer than "what is a zombie?" though it provides similar twists, turns, and misappropriations along the way. The word "meme" was apparently coined by Richard Dawkins (yes, the The God Delusion guy) in his book, The Selfish Gene (1976). I say apparently, because some have noted that a suspiciously similar term, both in spelling and usage, "mneme," pre-dates his coinage by about 50 years. There's a striking parallel in the arcs of "meme" and "zombie," from ultimate origin to current iteration. 

- Fun with analogies - 
mneme : Dawkins meme : Internet meme :: nzambi : Haitian zombie : Romero zombie


Moving on: Dawkinsian memes are best defined as the cultural behavioral counterpart of genes. For Dawkins, memes, which can be "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots, or of building arches," in short, any cultural entity, are passed on and replicated from person to person, and brain to brain, in a way that is remarkably similar to the way that genes are propagated via sperm and eggs (The Selfish Gene). Which is to say, the same way that genes are passed on, combined, and modified to create new versions of the genetic material, ideas and behaviors are also passed down, combined, and modified to evolve or become extinct over time. This is an oversimplification, to be sure, but I feel like I've conveyed the nuts and bolts of the concept. The idea is to apply some of the theories of natural selection to the field of cultural evolution. I haven't looked into the field of memetics as much as I would like, but the concept is compelling. It would be interesting to see someone attempt to classify human culture according to memetic (not sure if that usage is appropriate) variations the way the animal kingdom is broken down into family, genus, phylum, species and all that fun stuff.

Anyway, that's where the term "meme" comes from, and certainly, you can see echoes of the internet meme in Dawkins's ideas. But the internet meme is doing something a little different (perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of Richard Dawkins memes out there). Where Dawkins intended for meme to describe the transmission of ideas from person the person verbally or via behavioral cues, Internet memes are mimic-able cultural units - i.e. catchphrases, activities, or bits of media - that are transmitted from person to person via ... 


The Internet.


The manner of transmission, however, while the most obvious, is not the most important difference between Dawkinsian and Internet memes. I could be interpreting Dawkins a little wrong, but his memes seem to more likely to spread via similarity than difference. Even when they combine, evolve, or mutate to create new memes, they are propagated by the points they have in common. For Internet memes, I would argue the opposite is true. Although the base form of any meme will stay largely the same - a socially awkward penguin, Harlem Shake videos, a picture of Keanu Reeves - the meme itself is propagated primarily by the number of variations that can be imposed upon it. These deliberate alterations, are what help an Internet meme spread to a wider audience, who will then, in many cases, make their own version of a given meme. There is an intentionality to the modification and spread of Internet memes that largely seems absent from Dawkins's original concept. And, whereas the reach and durability of Dawkinsian memes seems predicated on how many people think or behave in similar ways, the popularity of Internet memes seems based on how readily they can be adapted to suit the needs of the people using them (as well as how many people the Internet allows these variations to be shared with). Sound familiar?

The rampant popularity of zombies and memes, and even zombie memes, seems to center around the same features: adaptability and personalization. Although individual instances of Internet memes are rarely as open to interpretation as the zombie figure, which, as I've said, can represent nearly any personal or cultural fear or anxiety, the underlying meme forms are often so customizable that their range can be every bit as broad. There is a meme that can say whatever it is that you want to say, whether that happens to be a joke

 or scathing social commentary. 

And if there isn't, you can make one up. 
You're welcome.
Something just occurred to me about zombies and memes, but I need to work through it before I can talk about it. I'll come back to this, whether it's in another post, or as an update to this one.


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