What is it?

Imagine trying to explain to your Grandma what a meme is. Where would you begin? I struggled and resorted to showing many examples. I can’t say that really helped though.

The word ‘meme’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins used it to describe the way in which information moves within a culture – or how ideas and behaviours spread from person to person. The ‘internet meme’, a format we’re more than familiar with today, is a subset of the concept. In its simplest form, it means ‘to go viral’ (drawn from Dawkins’ initial metaphor of a meme being a virus).

The internet – and through that, social media – has given us a platform to instantly share, rapidly change, grow and shift ideas. Pop culture, current affairs, and stock photos are the inspiration for most memes. From the outside looking in, one might view them as pointless, sarcastic, childish procrastination. But for me, it’s not pointless.

Last year one of my own memes went viral being liked over 40,000 times and very quickly being re-posted/modified by others. As a result, the internet owns it now. It’s not about getting credit. For me, it’s about sharing, relating to others, and often trying to make light of some pretty unpleasant news stories. For example, a gorilla being shot at Cincinnati zoo. Remember, our generation tends to grieve online. (Saying that, Harambe memes are well out of date. You gotta keep up with your current affairs – memes are not just for Christmas.)

But don’t ignore the power of the meme, it can spread like wildfire, especially when there’s a political theme (which is more often than not). Pepe the Frog first appeared online circa 2008 and quickly became a world-famous character. He’s since taken a sinister turn after being associated with the alt-right. That’s not to say that all memes are destined to become hate symbols – but with constant changing, editing and recycling, what starts as something harmless could end up turning sour.

Some of the biggest memes in 2016 were based on the children’s show, LazyTown. They’ve since taken ownership of these memes and have responded by posting original content across their own social media and receiving millions of hits. This is refreshing from the programme’s producers, actively embracing meme culture. I wonder what would happen if a brand/brand symbol ever became a meme? If not embraced, like LazyTown, how would that end? Perhaps with the same fate as Pepe?