A Meme Supreme

A short history of meme evolution and how culture can become temporarily dominated by a dead gorilla.

What is the most resilient parasite? A Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient…highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed — fully understood — that sticks; right in there somewhere.
— Cobb, Inception.

This quote from the Movie Inception sounds an awful lot like he could be describing a Meme, but Inception wasn’t the first to point out the striking similarity between an idea and a virus.


The Past: What’s in a Meme?

Broadly speaking, a meme is a theoretical unit from the realms of ideas, symbols, or practices, capable of migrating from one mind to another through speech, writing, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.

In the field of human culture, memes figure as analogues to genes, in that they appear to self-replicate, responding to a range of pressures.

The term ‘meme’ was first coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Some meme-theorists suggest that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of biological evolution). They do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity’s reproductive success.

Memes, spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and mutate. Like viruses, some memes replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.

“You are nothing more than a creation of genes and memes in a unique environment. Memes are ideas, skills, habits, stories, songs or inventions that are passed from person to person by imitation. They have shaped our minds, leading to the evolution of big brains and language because these served to spread the memes. But the memes with the cleverest trick are those that persuade us that our “selves” really exist. We all live our lives as a lie…
…the memes have made us do it — because giving us the illusion of “self” helps them to survive and spread.” — Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine

Meme as the Medium

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One of the first documented memes “It’s a Trap”, 1983

In 1990 Terrence McKenna predicted that memes will be prominent form of expression on the internet in the future — and he was absolutely correct. According to McKenna, memes are the “smallest units of a concept” competing in “an environment of information”.

While it’s difficult to trace back the origin of the meme format that is popular on the web today, we can trace early “internet” memes back to the early 1980's.


The Present: The Selfish Meme

To witness the full power of the Meme in 2016, look no further than how Harambe the Gorilla, whose tragic death gave rise to the most canonical meme of our time.

In the summer of 2016, The Harambe meme spread like wildfire across the internet before taking on different forms and serving as the carrier of other memes in the process by transforming itself into a medium.

What made the Harambe meme spread so quickly?

Harambe is the message that became a medium, capable of carrying any signal. — Venkatesh Rao, “How Harambe became the perfect Meme
Harambe marks the emergence of something akin to a true stock market for culture, where price movements cannot always, or even often, be narrativized, either locally or globally….It is perhaps the sheer meaninglessness of the original episode that made it an ideal candidate for memetic perfection. There is no object lesson in the Harambe story. No greater moral or meaning. No nascent Clint Eastwood movie. Yet the powerful video of a small child being dragged along by a large gorilla demanded a response and emotional resolution. When that resolution could not be found within the limited original context, Harambe broke out into the broader cultural marketplace, seeking, if not narrative interpretation, at least emotional resolution.

Here are some examples of popular Harambe inspired memes, along with the dozens of ‘sub-memes’ (below) which evolved from it.

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Weird Twitter quickly jumped on turning Harambe into a meme, photoshopping into image macros and ironically featuring him alongside photos of Prince, David Bowie, and Muhammad Ali in tributes to famous celebrities that died in 2016.[23]

The Future: Meme-Evolution

Recently, it seems as though the meme medium is evolving itself in order to further propagate throughout culture.
Meme Evolution Encapsulated in a Screenshot

Advice Memes, Post-Memes & Memes as Micro-Religions

One interesting question in 2016 is what happens when the meme medium begins to evolve beyond it’s incubation period from sites like 4chan, imgur & reddit and begin to spread through mainstream culture?

Memes as “micro-religions”

Some memes have even given rise to quasi-religious movements, like The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a parody religious organization with followers known as “Pastafarians”. The being resembles a large floating mass of cylindrical pasta with two large eyestalks that carries meatballs on each side of its body.

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Search Interest over time on Google Trends for flying spaghetti monster — Worldwide, 2004 — present

While this meme got off to a hot start, the Google trends chart above shows how it has since fallen off in terms of search intrest.


The meme evolution continues…

Today memes are even getting adopted by facebook moms in the form of ‘advice memes’.

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“Advice memes” shared by Moms on Facebook. Source

On Instagram, memes often take the form of relatable text-quotes and gifs, which are primarily shared amongst teenage girls.

The Next Evolution of the Meme?

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“Memes of the Internet” by Caldwell Tanner

It appears as if we now are entering a period of meme evolution similar to the Cambrian explosion, where new forms of memes are evolving at much more rapid pace than anyone can keep track of. There is even a site, KnowYourMeme, dedicated towards tracking them.

One thing that is becoming clear is that as memes continue to evolve, they will further evolve in symbiosis with and continue to shape the culture in which they are being hosted.

As with the evolution of any medium, the popularization of the meme as a means of idea transmission isn’t without it’s potential pitfalls.

In the not too distant future, will we control the memes or will the memes control us?

What’s for sure is that tools and communities that we build will help to shape our ability to make the good outweigh the bad. If the content we produce can help to promote more empathetic memes, pro-equality memes, and the pursuit of knowledge, those will be the most valuable tools we will have.

Adam Breckler

Adam Breckler

Currently Founder/CEO Prism Labs. Previously, Co-Founder & Head of Product at Visual.ly. Sometimes investor and advisor to early-stage startups.