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How did memes begin?

Today memes are all over the place, but where did these little caption pictures originate from? How did the internet come to be so obsessed with them? The answers are more scientific than you’d imagine.

Technology being increasingly ever present, it’s no overstatement to say everyone is on the internet these days, in some form or another. Okay, maybe not literally everyone considering most reports peg global internet penetration at about 50 percent. Still, we doubt any of those other 50 percent will be Digit readers, so for all practical purposes yes, everyone is online these days… but we digress. The reason we’re bringing up the internet is to delve into the second most popular form of entertainment on the internet – the ‘Meme’. When Richard Dawkins coined the term in his book, The Selfish Gene, he didn’t imagine that it would take up a life of its own. The meme has since evolved, and perhaps even slimmed down, considering where it stands today. Viral as they are today, will memes ever die?


There’s a meme for that fool

If you haven’t heard of the Meme, hold on, that’s what this article is here for. On the other hand, if you’re a 9gag regular and can identify every meme by name, you may think you know it all but we’re here to tell you that you don’t – that’s also what this article is here for. Clever eh? The old “All roads lead to Rome” meme. Or is it the ‘Destiny’ meme, the illusion of choice? We’ll get to that. First, a formal definition:



  1. An element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.
  2. An image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.

What most people think of when they read the word ‘Meme’ is the second definition, which is, in fact, a subset of the first. Today’s Internet memes as you likely know them are sometimes GIFs, and most often images with text overlays at the top and bottom, exclusively in the all caps Impact font style. These memes evolved – like most web phenomenon – in the 4chan crucible. Modern internet memes include text like “how can she slap” to everything from videos to fake site links that get you Rickrolled. The videos could be popular and fun like Psy’s record breaking Gangnam Style, or popular and distasteful like Rebecca Black’s cringe worthy Friday. Why limit ourselves to songs, even Richard Dawkins himself stars in a meme or two, where you can watch his amazing rebuttals to both stupid and intelligent questions.

Eating with a spoon is a meme too

Even as the first definition – the classical one – a meme is always in the form of information, whatever its substance, be it a ritual or the knowledge to make a katana. Without exception, memes are communicable, because of their form. The internet is a world composed entirely of information, so it is no surprise that is where most memes have moved in order to survive and thrive at a rapid pace. Internet memes are a niche kind of meme, which is why many die so easily and none last too long. Another contributing factor is that internet memes generally provide entertainment value more than anything else, and things get old quickly.

So what is a meme really? An idea… A concept… A thought… All of that and yet more than that.

If a meme is itself a meme, how do you define memes?

What does it all meme?

Since memes are replicators, it is very tempting to draw an analogy (as many do) with an existing and well-known replicator – DNA, or more aptly genes. In fact, the word ‘gene’ is the model Dawkins had in mind when he coined the word meme from ‘mimeme’, which is Ancient Greek and means “imitated thing”. The various traits of any specimen of any life form are representative of its genes, and are transmitted forward in time across individuals via the complexly simple act of replication. So too various aspects of human culture and social life are propagated in memes. However, this analogy is better not carried too far. Genes are a specific units of life’s chemistry. Despite much debate and discussion, it is still unclear what a meme exactly is. Actually, it would be strangely more appropriate to say, it is unclear how much a meme is. A meme is a pseudo-unit. Whether a word, a sentence, or an entire book, there are no lines when it comes to memes. A single meme is anything that has the meaning of a single theme. When they get any larger, they are to be called a memeplex – many memes mutually supporting each other. For example, to someone only vaguely familiar with ‘Star Wars’, ‘Star Wars’ itself is a meme. To them it’s ‘that sci-fi movie with the laser swords and stuff’; but to anyone more knowledgeable, ‘Star Wars’ is an intricate memeplex. Considering this new person to be only slightly more knowledgeable for simplicity, in the slightly expanded Star Wars memeplex, the Jedi, the Sith, and the Force are mutually supportive memes. They do not have to support each other literally, of course. The antagonist requires the protagonist and vice versa, if only to fight against. This again, may be thought of as an example of the Duality meme, which is a part of the ‘nature of the world’ memeplex, which in turn is a part of the curiosity memeplex.. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Instead of delving deeper into the abyss of defining a meme (which can only be done in terms of memes), let us consider some more of the characteristics of a meme so that we can notice and observe them in the real world:

Imitation and virality
Memes spread via imitation. What is essentially done, when you share a post? Unless you made your own content, you just successfully imitated the creator of that post’s content. You spread someone else’s idea. Even if you are intelligent enough to understand it, you didn’t create it. Even if you added your own caption or modified some detail, you just helped the meme evolve a little, and then you helped it spread when you clicked the ‘Share’ button. Actually, even if you made a meme, it’s going to die out unless enough people repost. Here is the first deviation from the Gene analogy: Genes (life molecules in general) have a design that ensures they replicate themselves. Their replication is an intrinsic characteristic. Memes on the other hand, replicate and evolve thanks to willing participants (assuming all participants have free will and think for themselves). Memes need people, sentient beings, in whose minds they reside and spread from. Keep in mind, you are always at the end of the branch of the spread of any meme you come across. It is you who decides if the meme is worth storing in your brain and telling other people about, or better forgotten and never mentioned. Memes need your belief to be recreated rather than replicated. When it comes to internet memes, they need your reposts!

Spread memes that make the world a better place!

Memeplexes like entire religions are a good example of well-designed memes, even if they didn’t start as conscious designs but merely came about as memes for the inexplicable. Religions contain memes that help people cope better with the realities of the world, and so they spread. A large number of people like to believe there is a life after death, and so the meme survives. Although this meme has been around for a long time, imagine no one had ever thought of it before. When people suddenly start liking the new meme of ‘life after death’, and we’d say it is going viral. Virality is exponential imitation, and a good meme is conducive to it.

Unnatural selection and evolution
Genes undergo natural selection as a trial by fire in the real world. If they are not helpful (and sometimes they are helpful by being unhelpful, such as the flamboyant plumage for the peacock) the individuals possessing those genes do not survive, and thus, they exit the gene pool. For memes, it’s more of a reality show than a trial by fire. Memes must proliferate in the socio-intellectual world, not the physical real world. The memes that survive and thrive are the memes that people like. And people like a meme when they relate to it, it helps them understand something, makes the world better for them, or they just generally find it entertaining. Unhelpful memes survive easily too if they are entertaining or compelling enough. In general, we tend to like memes which contain a bit of ‘me’ – yes, ‘you’. With so many different MEs and YOUs, there are no obvious rules. [One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.] It depends entirely on the collective whims and moods of the populace the meme is entering. The meme must pass unnatural selection.

Memes are information, and so are genes, however there are key differences in this similarity as well. Life’s molecules store information in an objective way, in a way that is actionable by itself. DNA, mRNA, ribosomes and the rest do not require special interpreters to give them life, they are a completely self-sustaining, self-replicating and hence self-evolving system. In contrast, memes are subjective. Though memes are also stored in a physical medium, they require subjective interpretation. A meme in the form of an English sentence is instantly dead to a Jarawa tribesman, whereas the relationship of lightning to thunder is a more universal meme. Memes sustain, replicate and evolve via all the multitude of selves that perceive and then either propagate or forget them. Each single person affects every meme he/she comes across and each meme is affected by every person whose mind it reaches. If nothing else, everyone can be responsible for the memes they spread in the world. Like genes, memes evolve via changes during replication. Yet again, there is a fundamental difference – when genes evolve, their underlying physical medium changes with the information. The medium and the message of life are coupled. Change the most insignificant amino acid in a protein’s structure and the efficiency drops a thousandfold, but for memes, it is all about the information. Whether you print on paper or view on a screen, Overly Attached Girlfriend is still gonna look at you the same!

Memes transcend mediums
She’s still gonna look the same even on cake

So you’re telling me, memes makes us who we are?

So you’re telling me you cannot kill an idea?

How did this whole meme begin? Before Richard Dawkins approached the concept of a meme, he began by asking an apt question about human behaviour: Why do so many of us do things that we know are bad for us? What makes us consciously counterproductive and subliminally self-defeating? How can people give up their lives willingly? Just as every river or stream has a source, every effect should have a cause. So there must be an answer to the question, and in looking for it, what better place to start than nature herself? Indeed there are examples of non-human life forms exhibiting self-defeating behaviour that leads to them landing up dead, contrary to the innate survival instincts. For example, some mice suddenly act fearless towards cats and end up eaten. This doesn’t make sense until you learn that a parasite (Toxoplasma gondii) hijacks the mouse in order to make its way back into the cat’s gut and complete its life cycle.

In case of us humans, to really find the cause, Dawkins decided to look at who/what was benefitting from the person’s self-destructive behaviour. There was the answer – the idea!

The ideal! The meme! When a person gives up his life willingly for his country, it doesn’t help the person but it surely and efficiently helps spread the meme of martyrdom. In in that one sense the gene and meme similarity rings very true – both are selfishly biased to their own propagation or survival, though not consciously.

Going by the general yet useful definition of a meme as a (pseudo) unit of cultural transmission, it would seem that memes are central to making us who we are, even if we haven’t identified them all. Sometimes even when we don’t know the background info associated with a meme, it can still trigger the appropriate feelings and we ‘get’ it. Humans are social animals and that is why we transmit or communicate in the first place – it is our innate need to bond. Perhaps memes are a medium that facilitates this bonding, allowing us to give and take parts of ourselves to share with as many people as can ‘get’ the meme. Perhaps memes are the simplest form of art. When a meme most accurately reflects our experience of the world, we call it truth.

Not sure if you get it…

Memes have everything to do with meaning, they are intrinsic to the way we conscious sentient beings experience and make sense of the world. Just as life exists, and will continue to, because our environment is conducive to it, memes will continue to exist as long as humans can perceive meaning. Which gets us thinking: will memetics help us understand the psyche, consciousness and intelligence? Once all humans are in pods a la The Matrix, will the AI have its own memes?

Thanks to all the memes available on the internet, it won’t have any trouble simulating a satisfying world for us, that’s for sure.

This article was first published in the March 2017 issue of Digit magazine. To read Digit’s articles first, subscribe here or download the Digit app for Android and iOS. You could also buy Digit’s previous issues here.


Sahil Dawka