Essentially a word for "idea" but with overtones of natural selection applied to idea "survival."

The term was coined in Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene as an example of a replicator (the sound begs comparison with 'gene.') From there people made it into a comprehensive theory of everything. Susan Blackwell's book _The Meme Machine_ is a good example of some of the strengths and weaknesses in 'memetic theory.'

A meme is a unit of imitation. A selfish replicator. Memes are studied in memetics. Examples of memes suggested by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Also, scientific ideas. Religions are examples of memeplexes.

It seems that everybody uses "meme" to refer only to fads, catchprahses, and other fast-moving and trivial things. But meme theory treats the definition of meme as much, much more. A meme is a thought, an idea of any kind. A worldview. A philosophy. A paradigm.

A meme is software. Anything that can be installed in your mind is a meme. Anything that can be transmitted, as mental software, from one mind to another, is a meme.

Memes demonstrate evolution, coevolution, and natural selection. The word "meme" means that you are looking at mental software from an ecological, evolutionary point of view. And this yields vast insights into the ways that memes develop and affect us.

The book "Thought Virus" by Donald Loflan is an excellent introduction to the pseudo-science of memetics. He provides a good overview of the current state of the discipline, and proceeds to deconstruct a dizzying array of cultural phenomenon under the lens of memetic theory. The chapter on modern religions in America is especially illuminating. The book is currently out of print but you can find it with a little effort.

A noder [in a writeup now deleted] has pointed out that même means 'same' in French. I would just like to add that when Richard Dawkins coined the word he was aware of this as an additional resonant factor (to help his new meme spread), plus that it was constructed from the root of 'memory' and related to Greek mnem-. A more conventional word might have been 'mememe' (or, heaven forfend, 'mnememe') but he wanted something snappy that went in parallel with gene. So 'meme' says: (i) like gene; (ii) carries the past with it, like memory; (iii) stays the same (French).

The fact that his meme theory has been so successful at propagating although he himself hasn't really been proselytizing for it shows that it is at the very least a moderately plausible proposal.

Daniel Dennett makes use of the meme meme in his book Consciousness Explained, saying that a human being is a symbiosis between a population of genes and a population of memes.

And Everything1 is one grand meme market.

meltdown, network = M = meme plague

meme /meem/ n.

[coined by analogy with `gene', by Richard Dawkins] An idea considered as a replicator, esp. with the connotation that memes parasitize people into propagating them much as viruses do. Used esp. in the phrase `meme complex' denoting a group of mutually supporting memes that form an organized belief system, such as a religion. This lexicon is an (epidemiological) vector of the `hacker subculture' meme complex; each entry might be considered a meme. However, `meme' is often misused to mean `meme complex'. Use of the term connotes acceptance of the idea that in humans (and presumably other tool- and language-using sophonts) cultural evolution by selection of adaptive ideas has superseded biological evolution by selection of hereditary traits. Hackers find this idea congenial for tolerably obvious reasons.

--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.

A meme is a self replicating piece of information. Examples include jokes, ad campaigns, religions, political ideology, mathematics, and poetry. Any piece of information which alters it's host in such a way that the host is more likely to propagate the information to new hosts

The definition of memes encompasses viruses, both biological and electronic. In a looser sense it also encompasses all life. The information in our genes was imperfectly copied down through our ancestors.

All memes evolve due to the pressures of Darwinism. Those memes more effective at self replication tend to squeeze out less successful memes from their niche. This is a well known fact about biological memes(live organisms), but is seldom thought about on the more abstract level (ie religion, politics, scientific ideas). Much of the interaction between organisms can be observed between informational memes, such as competition, cooperation, parasitism, and symbiotic relationships

"Just Do It"

:-)

"Holy Mary, Mother of God"

"All your base are belong to us!"

The words, symbols and phrases given above and down the right hand side of this node all have at least one thing in common - they are Memes. A relatively new application of Darwins law to popular culture, the study of Memes (Memetics) helps us understand why certain ideas, words and phrases are so popular, and what effect this can have on the evolution of the human race.

What is a Meme?
A Meme (pronounced Meem, as in dream), is generally defined as anything that can be transferred from one mind to another. Glenn Grant defines a meme as "A contagious information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the pattern." This means that the definition of a meme is extremely broad, and a meme can be anything from a catchy tune to a common phrase to a theory to a symbol to a dance. Although the use of the word meme is relatively new (see Etymology and Origins below), memes have been around since the dawn of man (and depending on how one defines meme, before that). Language is a meme, as is the use of fire, writing or agriculture.

Lesbians! Monkeys! Soy!

Etymology and Origins
The word meme is believed to have been coined in 1904 by Richard Semon, who discussed a "mneme" as a cultural transmission of experiences in his book, "Die Mneme". However, the word and concept became far more widely known following the publication of Richard Dawkins book "The Selfish Gene". There are two possible etymological origins for the word; they are "mimneskesthai", the Greek word for "memory" or "mimeisthai", the Greek word for "imitate". It is also worth noting, however, that in French word "même" means "same".

"In Soviet Russia..."

How Memes Work
As mentioned above, the theory of memes is derived from an application of Darwin's Theory of Evolution to culture and ideas. When one views a meme as an ostensibly living entity, it becomes apparent that certain memes are symbiotic in nature, in that they enhance the life of the person they "infect", and act as an evolutionary enhancement. This is especially true of some very old memes, such as hygiene, fire or language. Because memes by definition can be imitated, they tend to spread via natural selection. While this means that there is a strong correlation between an enhancement of the hosts life and the survival of that meme, this is not necessarily the case; for an example, see Smoking is cool. Because of the way that memes propogate based on certain conditions, it is not uncommon to view memes as basic lifeforms - they certainly do exhibit many of the characteristics required for life. Another example of the way in which memes imitate life can be found in "memetic drift", which is the term given to the way in which memes change as they move from person to person. This is of critical importance to people - without memetic drift, language would never have evolved beyond a few meaningful grunts.

Imitation is key in the propagation of memes, and because for the most part memes are beneficial or harmless, the ability to imitate well became a desirable genetic trait early in Man's development. This resulted in offspring who were even more capable at imitation, which lead to a more and more advanced memes being spread. Seen this way, it is easy to see how grunts could have become language, which in turn would have become writing, as early man developed and was able to take advantage of such memes, which in turn lead to more development.

This framework allows for further speculation - a culture, for example, can be viewed as a meta-organism, with the same evolutionary processes in place (although on a different scale). As cultures evolve, they adopt or discard certain traits either by choice or default, and these traits can affect the survival of that culture. For example, historians have discovered that some years prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, laws were changed to allow women to drink wine. However, the Romans used lead-lined amphorae, and as a result lead poisoning of a greater or lesser nature became very commonplace. This lead to a lower number of births, and a greater number of deformities in children, which in turn led to a reduced and weakened army, which is given as one of the reasons for the downfall of the Roman Empire.

"Show me the money!"

How Memes Spread
Memes spread by word or sight, but the likeliness of memes spreading is affected by a number of factors, including
  • How they make their host feel - Memes that make one feel good (Don't Worry, Be Happy) tend to spread faster or last longer than ones that make people feel bad. Exceptions to this are some memes that inspire fear, such as a cautionary tale (Don't boil water in a microwave) or one of the biggest memes of all (Act like this or you will burn in hell).
  • How they relate to their hosts lifestyle - Memes that have little or no relation to a hosts lifestyle are unlikely to be spread. A meme regarding the addition of water to acid would be useful to a chemist, but of little use to a chef.
  • From a position of power - Memes are more likely to be spread from more powerful people. Powerful in this sense includes but is not limited to physical power, economic power or cultural power (as in America). It is worth noting that most new words tend to spread downwards from the rich and powerful - slang words (which most new words are) very seldom spread upwards from the lower classes.

It is also worth noting that although memes spread because they are useful, a change in environment can render them harmful without any change in the meme. For example, the Vikings had a religious ban on fish. This proved detrimental when the Vikings tried to colonise Greenland. Because their methods of agriculture (which were appropriate for the European climate) were so inappropriate for the Greenland climate, the Vikings livestock quickly overgrazed what land was available. When winter came, no food was available for the livestock, and the Vikings had to start eating their own livestock, which was in those days a measure of wealth (in other words, the Vikings were forced to eat their money). The colony did not survive, but archaeologists have discovered the chewed upon bones of very young calves at the site, indicating that in the end, the Vikings were forced to eat their promise of food in the spring. Yet despite the number of human and mammal bones at the site, very few fish bones have been found (between three and twenty-seven), indicating that to the end, the Vikings stayed true to their religious dictates forbidding them to eat fish.

Hey, Macarena!

Religion: Antivirus for Memes?
Although it is apparent that religion is one of the most popular and ancient memes, from a cultural point of view it is also (for the most part) a beneficial one, as it helps to stop or slow the spread of potentially dangerous memes. Most major religions, for example, forbid murder and suicide, among other potentially society-endangering acts. Religion also serves as a particularly interesting type of meme to study, because it is so complex. Most religions, for example, espouse the virtue of propogating that religion, while at the same time actively encouraging censorship of competing religious memes. While this can be potentially limiting to a society (an entrenched social structure that actively resists change prevents progress and causes stagnation), it is also a useful anti-meme, in that many memes (especially including damaging memes) are less able to spread in such a society. However, as noted in the paragraph above, religious memes tend to lose their usefulness as the environment (social and physical) changes, and are especially vulnerable to progress when it does happen.

Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine

Recommended Reading
"Snow Crash", by Neal Stephenson
"The Meme Machine", by Susan Blackmore
"The Selfish Gene", by Richard Dawkins

Sources
http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=12366 (This node)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme
http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/MEMIN.HTML
http://www.memecentral.com/
http://maxwell.lucifer.com/virus/alt.memetics/what.is.html
http://www.drapplebaum.com/Fitness%20Rants/Rome,%20USA.htm (for info on the Romans) http://www.thelavinagency.com/articles_covers/Diamond/newyorkerreview2005.pdf (for info on the Vikings) http://www.thelavinagency.com/articles_covers/Diamond/newyorkerreview2005.pdf

Thanks to Swap for the name correction on Blackmore.
Thanks to Zoeb for the name correction on Dawkins.

This place needs more actual content. Let's begin.

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