Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.
The term meme was coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976 to posit how evolutionary principles might apply to culture at large. In Dawkins’s definition, a meme (he was intentionally trying to coin a word that sounded like gene) is an idea, habit, or phrase we pass from person to person within culture. Dawkins proposed that this worked according to a sort of Darwinian genetic scheme, kind of a natural selection of cultural artifacts producing an evolution of culture.
In popular usage, the term meme has come to mean simply the various bits of digital fluff that go viral when we share them on the Net. For most of us, the word meme brings to mind cats with bad grammar and videos and teenagers singing awkward pop songs about days of the week—not New Atheists going on about the Galapagos Islands. This is actually quite a fitting development for the definition, since Internet meme is most often a hijacking of something intended for one purpose and using it for another ironically or satirically. Internet meme has hijacked Dawkins’s term with all of its proposed grandeur and infused it with snark.
But Dawkins’s original definition of meme still very much applies: Internet memes are the pieces of digital culture we pass from person to person. If they aren’t shared, they aren’t memes. And if they’re shared, it doesn’t really matter if you personally like them or not, they count as meme. Memes are important because they offer us a pulse check for culture, unintentionally revealing our loves and our likes. And they are becoming more and more important as our urge to share them becomes progressively more impulsive. In an increasingly more connected world, memes are becoming more and more a part of the Internet experience, to the point where they are becoming synonymous with Internet culture itself.
Our cultural challenge as believers in Christ is to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of [the] mind” (Rom. 12:2), and as Internet culture becomes a constant presence in our lives, the challenge grows before us. Each meme we share, whether intentionally or ironically, is at another vote for what Internet culture will become.
As the Net continues to play a greater and greater part in our daily lives, it’s up to us to use our votes wisely, to be salt and light in the digital realm. Memes are important and worth taking seriously because they have become a tremendous influence in digital culture. Sometimes a meme may seem silly or sentimental—but often beneath the silliness and sentiment lies a world of meaning. Be wise, speak up, and be careful.