Thursday, 17 October 2013

What’s in a meme?

Etymology: derived from the Greek mimëma, ‘something imitated,’ by Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976.

I first heard of the word “meme” (pronounced as meem) after I started blogging in August 2009 and subsequently enrolling in two memes—Tuesday’s overlooked films, audio and video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom and Friday’s forgotten books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

While I haven't always been a regular participant, I have connected with lots of interesting people (and intrepid bloggers) who are. Their knowledge of films and books across genres has enriched my own. For me, this has been the biggest reward of a meme, not just the ones I'm a part of but even those where I’m not. Sometimes it does well to sit back and read what others are talking about. Another benefit is that it makes you disciplined, both as a reader and a reviewer.

What exactly is a meme? The internet is flush with definitions that say more or less the same thing. I selected five sources that gave five slightly different meanings.

Common definition: A meme is an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. It acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.

Richard Dawkins: Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes, fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leading from body to body via sperm or eggs, 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.

Urban Dictionary: An idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behaviour that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media).

The online dictionary also describes meme, in blogspeak, as an idea that is spread from blog to blog.

InternetSlang: An idea that spreads like a virus by word of mouth, email, blogs etc.

The above two definitions are the ones I'm most comfortable with as I can tell others easily.

The Free Dictionary: A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.

Then there is another thing called “internet meme” which, according to Wikipedia, is “an idea, style or action which spreads, often as mimicry, from person to person via the Internet, as with imitating the concept. Some notable examples include posting a photo of people in public places or uploading a short video of people dancing to the Harlem Shake.”

I see little difference between a meme and an internet meme.

My basic understanding of a meme is that it refers to the collective imitation or replication of a specific idea, a theme or a concept in which players or participants are free to choose their topic or subject provided it corresponds with the idea, theme or concept as specified.

For example, under Friday’s Forgotten Books, a meme now in its sixth year I think, you are free to review any book so long as it is, indeed, forgotten, as in a rare or vintage mystery that you seldom hear or read about. Here “forgotten book” is the idea, theme or concept.

A meme, also known as a challenge on some blogs, takes a different turn when, say, a particular book or author is specified. Patti Abbott recently hosted Patricia Highsmith for FFB where you had to review only books by the American author. Ross Macdonald is up next, on November 8.

There is a slight twist in the meme, however. Even when the idea and the topic are specified, you can still broaden their scope to suit your taste. For instance, if you couldn't read and review a novel by Patricia Highsmith, you could still write about her in other ways, say, an essay, a short story review or a compilation of quotes. I did something like that for the Georges Simenon FFB on July 20, 2012. I couldn't find a single book by the iconic writer, so I did the next best thing: I wrote about my futile search for Georges Simenon. In this sense memes afford leniency but that would depend on the promoter of the meme. Patti and Todd have been extra generous.

I'd also like to think of a meme as a domino effect, in the positive sense of the term. Now after all that I hope I haven't got my meme wrong. What are your thoughts on this acculturation?

14 comments:

  1. Its a good article i really enjoyed it. Music is great entertainment factor. Sarantos solo music artist

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    1. Sarantos, thank you for writing. A musical meme sounds like a good idea too.

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  2. Prashant, a great post and something I hadn't really thought about. I've joined in a couple of Meme's but when linking to them never tagged them as such - probably because I didn't understand the term...before now!

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    1. Col, thank you! It's something I hadn't thought about either. I have only joined two memes, as you can see, and though I'm often tempted to take up more challenges I'm dissuaded by the paucity of time to read and review books. Besides, I like to have a free hand to read what I like and when I want to.

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  3. I enjoy some memes and would like to take part more. I seldom have the time to give, though, and many are pretty complicated and require a lot of time.

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    1. Charles, the fear of not fulfilling a meme commitment is what prevents me from participating in more memes and time, precious time, has much to do with it. It's another matter that I could actually find time to squeeze in an extra meme or two.

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  4. I do enjoy memes and challenges and Todd and patti;s are really great fun - great post Prashant, really enjoyed this look at the meaning and effect of the somewhat diaphanous 'meme' - or as I like to think of her, 'The Screaming Meme', but that's a whole other plot ...

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    1. Thank you, Sergio! There's more to memes and challenges than I've covered. I like "The Screaming Meme." It's like shouting from the rooftops. I found that memes were open to all kinds of (mis)interpretation. And now I'm off to check the meaning of the word "diaphanous"!

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  5. Very interesting, Prashant, and very well explained. When I first became aware of memes on the internet, I found the concept confusing when I tried to find out more about it. You have summarized the ideas and applications very well.

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    1. Tracy, thank you for the kind words. I've been fascinated by this term too. I didn't know Dawkins had coined it more than three decades, as an offshoot of the word gene. It makes sense, at least in a non-scientific way. There are entire sites dedicated to meme and how it works.

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  6. Great post! I enjoy reading memes but I don't as a rule participant only because I'm too lazy and am bad with follow-through. I do things at my own pace and don't like deadlines much or rules for that matter *laugh* I used to lead one in another blogging life but yeah, they're fun and like you said there are benefits to them. Thanks for breaking it down for us because like Col, never really understood the term until recently. Patti's blog is great and I love the Forgotten book feature.

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    1. Keishon, thank you very much. The reasons you cited are my reasons too for not participating in more memes than I do, aside from the element of time and the freedom to read. I'm used to deadlines in the newspaper industry and don't wish to add more outside of my profession. Frankly, I don't think I've quite understood the term yet though now I've an idea what it is all about. I agree, Patti's blog is great and I enjoy answering the questions she sets for us, which in a way is like another meme.

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  7. I first came across the word "meme" in the early days of the Web, when it was mostly graduate students in discussion groups. To me it still has the meaning it had for me then: the spread of an idea, like a virus, "infecting" people who then pass it on to others. Implicit is the notion that a meme has a life of its own and is not under anyone's control. Memes evolve, of course, and I think the meaning of "meme" has evolved over recent years. Nicely researched again, thanks.

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    1. Ron, thank you for the kind words as well as for simplifying the term "meme." Your view—that memes have a life of their own and are not under anyone's control—is more lucid than the above definitions and also my understanding of the term. I think it's going to evolve over many years and it'd be interesting to see what shape it takes as time passes.

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