The Selfish Meme

These little "information-packets with attitude" are spawning words as well as ideas

Illustration: Greg Mably

A new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.

—Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

At the end of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, geneticist Richard Dawkins proposed the idea of the meme, which he described as "a unit of cultural transmission" analogous to the gene. The meme idea was so powerful that it quickly became a meme itself as it spread from mind to mind with the peculiar inevitability that seems to characterize all memes. (Indeed, the philosopher Daniel Dennett has described the meme as "an information-packet with attitude.") For our purposes here, the meme meme has spawned a rather impressive lexicon of terms, many of which come from the field of memetics, the study of memes. (I'm indebted to memeticist Tim Tyler and the good folks at the website Know Your Meme for many of these terms.)

Although Dawkins's analogue for the meme was the gene, current meme lingo is heavily weighted toward epidemiology. Thus, synonyms include ideavirus, virus of the mind, and thought contagion. Similarly, the medium that carries a meme is called a vector, the successful insertion of a meme into a person's brain is called an infection, and the infected person is a host. A readily contagious meme is said to have sneezability. An active meme affects the behavior of its host, as opposed to an inactive or latent meme. A host that reacts negatively—for example, by advocating censorship of the meme—has a meme allergy. If the meme causes self-destructive behavior in the host—as, for example, a meme about martyrdom might—the host is called a memoid, by analogy with android. When a prior infection by one meme prevents a host from being affected by another, the original meme is called an immuno-meme.

A grassroots meme begins with, and is for the most part propagated by, ordinary users rather than, say, a corporation. If some big-time marketer fakes a grassroots meme, then you have an astroturf meme. A similar idea is the forced meme, which is someone's deliberate (and usually unsuccessful) attempt to create a meme.

Memes that evolve alongside a larger meme are called comemes or, since the two memes have a kind of symbiotic relationship, symmemes. More specifically, a bait meme offers some benefit to the host if it adopts the main meme. (For example, if the main meme is Christianity, the bait meme might be an eternal afterlife.) Many main memes also come with a hook meme that, after the host has taken the bait meme, causes the host to replicate the main meme. (In the Christianity example, a hook meme would be the idea of spreading the gospel.) When a main meme is surrounded by one or more comemes, the resulting constellation of ideas is a meme complex or a memeplex.

Forums that are prolific generators of memes are called memetic hubs, and sites that are particularly adept at spreading existing memes are called amplifiers. These sites often specialize in certain meme types, including the phrasal template (such as the snowclones I featured in a 2008 column), the image macro (a picture with varying text, such as LOLcat images), and the subvertisement (a meme hack that modifies an ad to subvert its original message). On the negative side is the zombie lie, a false statement that keeps getting repeated no matter how often it has been refuted.

Richard Dawkins became famous in the 1970s for his concept of the selfish gene, and he has become infamous in recent years for his unyielding atheism. But I predict that Dawkins will be known, a hundred years hence, not for these contributions to science and culture but for the concept of the meme. Feel free to spread that idea around.

About the Author

PAUL MCFEDRIES is a technical and language writer with more than 40 books to his credit. He also runs Word Spy, a Web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases.

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