What Is a Meme?

A meme is an idea, piece of information, image, or trend that spreads through the culture—from a woman's cold-shoulder shirt in 2017 to catchphrases and cat emojis and gifs online. The word meme is derived from the Greek word mimeme, as in imitated thing, and a successful meme is said to “go viral,” or spread throughout the internet. The term was famously coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene, as a cultural corollary to the biological transmission of genetic information via genes and genetic recombination. Dawkins, however, is not the first to consider the meme. The German zoologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Wolfgang Semon, for one, wrote about mneme, from the muse of memory Greek goddess Mneme, in the early 1900’s. There’s an argument that memes evolve via natural selection, just as in biological evolution, with less successful memes dying out, or becoming extinct. 

How Ideas Go Viral

Because memes are so malleable and intangible, they are difficult to study. Still, research has attempted to draw some general conclusions about why particular memes go viral. Studies suggest that neither the quality of its content, nor its proximity to the truth, has much of an impact on a meme’s popularity. The viral reach of Slender Man and the persistence of the vaccine-autism myth are two well-known examples. What does seem to predict a meme’s perpetuation, at least in part, is its emotional appeal and related physiological arousal. A meme that produces high-arousal emotion, whether negative or positive, tends to be shared with greater frequency.


Media, Persuasion

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