An Internet meme (// MEEM) is an idea, style or action which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet, as with imitating the concept. Some notable examples include posting a photo of people in public places lying down planking and uploading a short video of people dancing to the Harlem Shake.
A meme is "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.". An Internet meme may take the form of an image, hyperlink, video, picture, website, or hashtag. It may be just a word or phrase, including an intentional misspelling. These small movements tend to spread from person to person via social networks, blogs, direct email, or news sources. They may relate to various existing Internet cultures or subcultures, often created or spread on sites such as 4chan, Reddit and numerous others in our time, or by Usenet boards and other such early-internet communications facilities. Fads and sensations tend to grow rapidly on the Internet, because the instant communication facilitates word-of-mouth transmission.
The word "meme" was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as an attempt to explain the way cultural information spreads; Internet memes are a subset of this general meme concept specific to the culture and environment of the Internet. In 2013 Dawkins characterized an Internet meme as being a meme deliberately altered by human creativity—distinguished from biological genes and Dawkins' pre-Internet concept of a meme which involved mutation by random change and spreading through accurate replication as in Darwinian selection. Dawkins explained that Internet memes are thus a "hijacking of the original idea," the very idea of a meme having mutated and evolved in this new direction. Further, Internet memes carry an additional property that ordinary memes do not—Internet memes leave a footprint in the media through which they propagate (for example, social networks) that renders them traceable and analyzable.
In the early days of the Internet, such content was primarily spread via email or Usenet discussion communities. Messageboards and newsgroups were also popular because they allowed a simple method for people to share information or memes with a diverse population of internet users in a short amount of time. They encourage communication between people, and thus between meme sets, that do not normally come in contact. Furthermore, they actively promote meme-sharing within the messageboard or newsgroup population by asking for feedback, comments, opinions, etc. This format is what gave rise to early internet memes, like the Hampster Dance. Another factor in the increased meme transmission observed over the internet is its interactive nature. Print matter, radio, and television are all essentially passive experiences requiring the reader, listener, or viewer to perform all necessary cognitive processing; in contrast the social nature of the Internet allows phenomena to propagate more readily. Many phenomena are also spread via web search engines, internet forums, social networking services, social news sites, and video hosting services. Much of the Internet's ability to spread information is assisted from results found through search engines, which can allow users to find memes even with obscure information.
Evolution and propagation
An Internet meme may stay the same or may evolve over time, by chance or through commentary, imitations, parody, or by incorporating news accounts about itself. Advice Dog is one of the most famous types of these by giving rise to the Advice Animal image macros we know today. Internet memes can evolve and spread extremely rapidly, sometimes reaching world-wide popularity within a few days. Internet memes usually are formed from some social interaction, pop culture reference, or situations people often find themselves in. Their rapid growth and impact has caught the attention of both researchers and industry. Academically, researchers model how they evolve and predict which memes will survive and spread throughout the Web. Commercially, they are used in viral marketing where they are an inexpensive form of mass advertising.
One empirical approach studied meme characteristics and behavior independently from the networks in which they propagated, and reached a set of conclusions concerning successful meme propagation. For example, the study asserted that Internet memes not only compete for viewer attention generally resulting in a shorter life, but also, through user creativity, memes can collaborate with each other and achieve greater survival. Also, paradoxically, an individual meme that experiences a popularity peak significantly higher than its average popularity is not generally expected to survive unless it is unique, whereas a meme with no such popularity peak keeps being used together with other memes and thus has greater survivability.
Writing for The Washington Post in 2013, Dominic Basulto asserted that with the growth of the Internet and the practices of the marketing and advertising industries, memes have come to transmit fewer snippets of human culture that could survive for centuries as originally envisioned by Dawkins, and instead transmit banality at the expense of big ideas.
Public relations, advertising, and marketing professionals have embraced Internet memes as a form of viral marketing and guerrilla marketing to create marketing "buzz" for their product or service. The practice of using memes to market products or services is known as memetic marketing. Internet memes are seen as cost-effective, and because they are a (sometimes self-conscious) fad, they are therefore used as a way to create an image of awareness or trendiness.
Marketers, for example, use Internet memes to create interest in films that would otherwise not generate positive publicity among critics. The 2006 film Snakes on a Plane generated much publicity via this method. Used in the context of public relations, the term would be more of an advertising buzzword than a proper Internet meme, although there is still an implication that the interest in the content is for purposes of trivia, ephemera, or frivolity rather than straightforward advertising and news.
Examples of memetic marketing include the FreeCreditReport.com singing ad campaign, the "Nope, Chuck Testa" meme from an advertisement for taxidermist Chuck Testa, and the Dumb Ways to Die public announcement ad campaign by Metro Trains Melbourne.
- Blackmore, Susan (March 16, 2000). The Meme Machine (Volume 25 of Popular Science Series ed.). Oxford University Press, 2000. p. 288. ISBN 019286212X. Retrieved 30 November 2012.
- Shifman, Limor (Nov 8, 2013). Memes in digital culture. MIT Press, 2013.
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- Meme. Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- Dawkins, Richard (1989), The Selfish Gene (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, p. 192, ISBN 0-19-286092-5, "We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory', or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'."
- Solon, Olivia (June 20, 2013). "Richard Dawkins on the internet's hijacking of the word 'meme'". Wired UK. Archived from the original on July 9, 2013.
- Dawkins, Richard (June 22, 2013). "Just for Hits". The Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors' Showcase. (video of speech)
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- Basulto, Dominic (July 5, 2013). "Have Internet memes lost their meaning?". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on July 9, 2013.
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- Gary Marshall, The Internet and Memetics - academic article about Internet and memes.