key concepts in social research
by alice marwick
The Internet is a bastion of folk culture. Insider slang, chain emails, and trendy videos fill inboxes and news feeds, cir- culating from user to user. If someone uploads a photo of her cat, another adds a poorly-spelled caption and posts it to a message board, and months (or years) later, someone else changes the caption, this string of reappropriated words and images is called a “meme,” in Internet parlance. The term is vague enough to encompass such varied digital artifacts as Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” music video, collections of funny yearbook quotes, and animated GIFs of a dancing ham- ster. Memes reveal much about what communications scholar Henry Jenkins refers to as the participatory culture of the Internet, which is constantly in flux.
According to Patrick Davison, “an Internet meme is a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission.” Limor Schifman defines them as “cultural infor- mation that passes along from person to person, yet gradually scales into a shared social phenomenon.” The availability of social media means that any piece of
Memes propagate themselves by leaping from brain to brain.
Internet content has the potential for an enormous audience. Websites like Know Your Meme chronicle popular Internet trends almost as quickly as they emerge. The term “meme” was coined by evolutionary biologist (and famed atheist) Richard Dawkins in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. Though the book is
mainly concerned with the propa- gation of genetic material, Dawkins briefly turned his attention to the propagation of cultural mate- rial. He observed that fashion and customs evolve rapidly, resembling the ways genes evolve. Curious as to how such influ- ential norms could change so quickly, Dawkins broke
Memes such as “Paula Deen’s Riding Things,” a comment on the celebrity chef’s food festival antics, draw upon pop culture cultural products
imagery, slicing and dicing them for Internet consumption. down into units called memes, including “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” Just as genes propagate themselves by leaping from body to body, he wrote, so “memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense,
can be called imitation.”
Dawkins identified three key ele- ments of a successful genetic variant: copy-fidelity, fecundity, and longevity. In relation to memes, copy-fidelity is the ability to replicate accurately; fecundity is its speed of replication; and longevity its stability over time. Certain memes, he
said, will be more successful than others because they fulfill a cultural need or are uniquely suited to a specific circumstance.
moving to memetics
Dawkin’s theory laid dormant until it was popularized in the late 1990s with the advent of memetics. Memes were a fitting metaphor for Internet culture,...