I’m willing to bet that, at some point, you’ve heard your middle-schooler talk about memes. Whether you’ve heard them utter some seemingly random catchphrase, or seen them post a strange picture with an even stranger caption on one of their many social media forums, our kids seem to have adopted this new way of communicating with each other that often seems so strange and esoteric to us ancients who lived in the mythical pre-internet “olden days.” Sometimes, it can be downright frightening to think that our children are communicating in ways that we don’t quite understand with audiences that are far bigger than any we ever had in our every day lives. It is my hope to perhaps ease some of that fear by talking about what memes actually are, and by letting you know that they are nothing new.
When kids talk about memes today, they are most often referring to internet memes. Internet memes, as described above, often take the form of an image by itself or with an added caption. Here are examples of both:
Internet memes can be stand-alone posts, but they are often used as responses or reactions to other social media posts. There is a seemingly unending variety of memes, and this contributes to their precise meaning being hard to pin down. Also, the same meme source picture can become something entirely different depending on the added text or the situation in which it is used.
Internet memes can also often take the form of catchphrases or sound bites from a variety of sources, like video games, movies & shows, clips (think of Vine and Instagram), and songs. They are often uttered well outside of the domain of their sources, which can sometimes cause them to be harder to decipher without the visual context clues provided by picture-and-text-based memes. For example, if you bring home a new pair of shoes for your kid and they respond with “What are those?!” it doesn’t mean that they’ve suddenly forgotten what shoes are in form and function. Rather, they are using a meme in the form of a catchphrase that came from an entry in the popular Urban Dictionary website, and later a Vine video, to indicate that they do not agree with your style sensibilities.
So, what did I mean when I said earlier that memes are not a new thing? Certainly, relative to human history, the internet is very much a new thing. Well, internet memes are just a very specific form or category of memes. Memes have been with us, by all accounts, since we have been human. When I introduce a new concept to my students, the first thing I like to do is look at the etymology of the word used to name the concept, so let’s start there. The word “meme” comes to us from the same root as our words “mimic” and “mime”: the Greek word mimeisthai, which means to imitate or to represent through imitation. This etymological knowledge really gets to the heart of what a meme is- it is something that is repeated or imitated.
The word “meme” as we know it comes to us from the famed and controversial academic, evolutionary biologist, and author Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. A famous quote from that book sums up a lot of what Dawkins discusses therein: “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes”. To paraphrase Dawkins, he believes that there is a non-organic counterpart to genes which, in the same way that genes are responsible for the human organism replicating and propagating the traits that were biologically favorable or successful enough to allow their bearer to survive and reproduce, memes allow socially or culturally favorable or successful ideas to remain with us. Basically, memes are to human culture what genes are to human biology. Further, Dawkins believes that, just like genes, memes not only replicate; they mutate, too.
My favorite example, probably because it helps me to understand what I think is a pretty crazy idea, is fire. Humans aren’t born with the ability to make fire, and it is not part of our genetic legacy, like our capability for tool creation and use (which other non-human animals certainly have). Long ago, someone figured out how to make it, probably through the heat created by friction. The other humans who witnessed fire being made seemingly out of nothing likely thought “hey, that’s a pretty good idea,” and then replicated it. All of a sudden, everyone was doing it. Not only was everyone copying the idea, but the idea was mutating and evolving: two sticks became a stick and a base, which became a fire bow or drill, which became two pieces of flint, which became, eventually, a Bic. The idea of mechanically creating fire caught on and spread like, well, like wildfire. That is what makes it a meme- a culturally significant or valuable idea, practice, style, process- whatever- that catches and spreads.
So now you know what memes are, and you know that they are nothing new. Knowing these things, you can hopefully feel a little better about attempting to engage in conversation with your child about them, and I feel like you should. We all should. Instead of dismissing internet memes out of hand as childish or pointless, we may recognize that they indeed have cultural value and can tell us quite a bit about the culture we live in and the culture that is being created by the generations following us. We should discuss their role in our personal, social, and political lives. We should see their value in helping to create better writers through the development of things like awareness of context and of audience. We should be able to see the beauty of conversations that can happen entirely in pictures and how that can help to foster abstract thinking and the creation of new imagery that can help us take all forms of art in new and meaningful directions. And, finally, we should be able to laugh with our children, because there are few things funnier than a dank meme (look it up).