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Every now and again, someone posts a viral image containing a claim - generally a photo with some white text written on it, and someone refers to it as a meme, and then a whole argument ensues about whether it is a meme or not.

What is a meme?

(Note: I know this really belongs on English Language & Usage, but I just want a shortcut URL I can post in comments to redirect the bickering to a safe place.)

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    How does defining a meme for this site help anything for this site? Does it actually matter if a viral image is a meme or not in answering whether the message in the image is true? – fredsbend Jan 4 '17 at 22:58
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    @fredsbend: My entire goal is to stop extended precriptivist/descriptivist discussions breaking out continuously across many questions. The discussion on this linguistic point is of no consequence to answering the questions, but derails the comments. – Oddthinking Jan 4 '17 at 23:51
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There's not one, not two, but three definitions of the word in current usage.

1. Original Definition

The first is Richard Dawkin's original definition from the 1976 Selfish Gene.

In this 2013 presentation he summarises the concept:

Memes can be good ideas, good tunes, good poems as well as drivelling mantras. Anything that spreads by imitiation - as genes spread by bodily reporduction or viral infection - is a meme

2. Internet Meme

This original usage has been transformed to refer to concepts found on the Internet that are easily copied, but also easily modified and re-generated.

Later in the same presentation, Richard Dawkins explains that this is a different definition.

But the very idea of the meme has itself mutated and evolved in a new direction. An Internet meme is a hijacking of the original idea. Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity.

In a 2013 Wired interview about the same presentation, he explains the two meanings are related:

How do you feel about your word meme being reappropriated by the internet?

The meaning is not that far away from the original. It's anything that goes viral. In the original introduction to the word meme in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, I did actually use the metaphor of a virus. So when anybody talks about something going viral on the internet, that is exactly what a meme is and it looks as though the word has been appropriated for a subset of that.

3. Image Macros

A third concept is sometimes called an Image Macro, and refers to an image (generally a photo) with text superimposed on it (generally in the Impact font).

Image macros - at least the successful ones - are examples of Internet memes. They are often directly referred to as "memes".

For example:

This "confusion" between image macros and memes angers some linguistic prescriptivists:

Such a position misses the point in two ways:

  1. There is no official authority on the English language. If many people use the word "meme" to refer to image macros, then that is what the word means.

  2. If there were an authority on the official definition of meme, it must surely be Richard Dawkins, and we can see the definition that the prescriptivists are using does not precisely match Dawkin's original definition.

Conclusion

In summary, it is not wrong to refer to any of these concepts as memes:

  • concepts widely shared orally or in print and modified by accident.
  • concepts widely shared through social media and deliberately modified with image editing tools.
  • image macros - images with writing on them, following a common style or template.
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As coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, and quoted in the review in New Scientist, Volume 72:

'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.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

So if the idea has in fact gone viral, it is reasonable to call it a "meme".

See also the September 1952 International Congress of Linguistics

We learn speech by imitation. The linguistic symbol is first and foremost a mimeme. Whom do we imitate?

So imitation, copying or "going viral" is the key to being a meme.

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A meme is everything this site is about, or just about if we take both meanings of the word:

An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations

and

an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means

I think, that more or less covers almost every topic we discuss here. Everything you've ever heard, seen, or believed could fall into the wide category of a "meme".

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