Sunday, May 18, 2008

Memes: the evolution of a new word

A lot of people have recently been tagged with The Inquisition Meme and as many of them don't seem to know what a meme is or how you pronounce it I thought I'd help out.

To begin with, you pronounce meme to rhyme with cream. I thought it was coined by Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine but it turns out it was Richard Dawkins who first invented the word in The Selfish Gene. If you want to know about memes I recommend Blackmore's book, which explains the concept very clearly, or her meme page on her website.

As I understand it, a meme is a unit of information capable of reproducing itself using people's minds as its medium, just as a gene is a unit of information capable of reproducing itself using people's bodies as the medium.

It's a pretty powerful concept and gives an explanation for the way human culture works: everything from world religions to chain letters. I love it when a new word is coined for a new concept - it's so much better than hijacking an old word into the job with all its attendant baggage.

Today's post has been brought to you by the letters M and E and the number 7.


Robin S. said...

Hey- thanks for this background!

Whirlochre said...

The scary part of the concept is that the memes have more power than the minds we believe generate them. The habits are in control, if you like. So the term 'yay' does not exist because it has become popular to use it as an expression of excitement — because we want to — but because it has replicated itself aggressively. In that sense, memes are the ultimate phantoms.

On a lighter note, I like introducing new words into sentences with no explanation to see if they will 'catch'.

fairyhedgehog said...

Yes, if you take the theory of memes to its logical conclusion it is rather scary. But I tend to think that no one theory or explanation is the whole story.

And while I feel like I have free will, I might as well tell myself that I do have free will. Whatever that is.

Blogless Troll said...

When I first saw these things that bloggers pass around and learned that they called them "memes," my first reaction was: That's... not really what a meme is.

But the meme of calling these Q&A things memes had already gone supernova, so it was no use trying to convince people they were wrong. It's like trying to explain to 90% of Americans that the US is not, was not, and never intended to be a "democracy."

fairyhedgehog said...

Blogess Troll, you always have a sideways (and interesting) take on things.

I'm not American. Can you explain about the democracy comment?

McKoala said...

Now I know how to pronounce it. I understood that bit.

I think I'm doing one later today...

fairyhedgehog said...

I'll look forward to seeing that.

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