‘Memes” are units of cultural information, which are exchanged not within a ‘gene pool’ but within a ‘meme pool’. The former transferring biological information and the latter being imitated as it is passed along communication networks and also influencing the behaviour of the recipients. They occur in a variety of forms and it seems like a ‘meme’ can be just about anything – so long as it’s transmitted, repeated over and over and intended to change people’s behaviour. The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene and is a shortening of the ancient Greek word mimeme – imitated thing/to imitate. The word may be relatively new but the process is not.James Gleick looks at What Defines a Meme in an article in Smithsonian Magazine in May 2011.
I’ve been wondering whether the wall paintings that appeared in early churches could be counted as memes – they were similar in form, acting to give messages to those unable to read the Latin in bibles and would serve as emphasis to sermons. Move forward to Lord Kitchener’s posters recruitment poster WWI which remains instantly recognisable to many and is still regularly copied in advertising and used as a satirical motif in the media.
BBC News online magazine presented an interesting article about the poster here
There was another influential meme produced during WWII
(Cartoon by Fougasse (pseudonym of Punch editor Kenneth Bird) 1940-1042 approx)
The saying “walls have ears” appears to date back Centuries ago and variations of it are found in many languages. There’s an article concerning an interview, found in the media, with Jan Koum, founder of WhatsApp, where Koum used the expression in referring to WhatsApp’s emphasis on privacy and what it was like growing up in the former Soviet Union. An interesting juxtaposition of influence and idea.
Memes and Digital Culture
Paul Frosh has referred to the propensity of digital technologies to “foreground the ‘memetic’ nature of much cultural production” (Frosh 2013:145) whereby the web and social media, “have enabled their multiplication as preferred modes of popular expression, while at the same time making visible memetic procedures of replication, mutation and dissemination”.
My Facebook feed usually contains a number of memes of different varieties – sometimes they make me laugh and sometimes they make me frown particularly those which include a piece of ‘fake news’ as a way of further ridiculing someone unpopular or attempting to persuade. I’m not being snobbish here as I occasionally post memes myself. Whilst they have been used for more altruistic purposes, Internet memes can often tend to focus on something ridiculous, that makes people look slightly foolish The example given being the ‘Crasher Squirrel” that then triggered ‘endless interpretations’.
On 11th December the Livewire site gives “50 Internet Memes that Have Won Our Hearts” and, as I expected includes the famous Grumpy Cat (No. 4). During my research for this exercise I learned that photographing cats in in this way, including captions, goes back to the studios of Harry Pointer and Harry Frees in Victorian times and LOLspeak started in the 1830s in Boston newspapers – see here.
The list includes the Spinning Ballerina Illusion which I hadn’t seen before. I saw her turning clockwise first, then anti-clockwise and so on. How about you?
In general, I’ve appreciated doing this exercise because it’s made me realise the extent of influence that apparently simple visual/textual captions can have a more lasting influence. The exercise requests me to create my own photographic response to an internet meme, something original or my own interpretation of an existing meme. It might be funny or profound, but it should make people want to look at it and share it. I’ll come back to this exercise when something has come to mind
Frosh (P) (2013) “Beyond the image bank: digital commercial photography” (2013) In:
Lister, M (Ed) (2013) The Photographic Image in Digital Culture. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 131-148