As I rejoin the world of social media, one things sticks out at me — the adoption of the word meme to describe any old post we decide to broadcast to our various audiences around the world. Memes hold as much significance and sway as our genes do in shaping cultures, over generations, and yet I hear people saying things like “check out this meme of a cat eating pizza” or “my buddy sent me a meme about Prince’s death”. I’m sorry folks, those are not memes, they are simply our mind chatter being immortalized in cyberspace through our fingertips instead of our mouths. I’m not saying those kinds of things aren’t creative or even at times captivating and clever, they are. Social media is neutral, neither good nor bad. It is a tool. It can be used to waste time in frivolity and fluff; it can be used to express the depths of ones creativity; it can be used to inform, impress, and interconnect. It’s the very avenue by which this article has made it to your brain after all. However, social media has only been around for 20 years in its current form and that is simply not enough time to create even one single meme.
Meme comes from the latin root to mimic and is described by Dictionary.com as a part of our culture that has been formed through repetition by being passed down from generation to generation. The fact that humanity now eats cooked meat and uses utensils is a meme. Through repetition over generations, as in a widespread generational mimic, new cultural trends and behaviors are created and adopted. Flossing is a meme, because it was not created genetically, but memetically, meaning it was born from mimicking, over time, not from being re-tweeted. We call our social media posts memes to give significance to what does’t much rise above the level of banter or chit chat. Meme’s change cultural trends over generations, not over news cycles.
Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 work The Selfish Gene likes to take credit for the coining of the word, despite it self-admittedly being from the french meme which means same, alike, or oneself. The word meme has been in our cultural genetic make up, or should I say memetic make up, since before Richard Dawkins was born. We can co-opt it, like we did with the other French words “rendezvous” and “hors d’oeuvre” because we are too lazy to come up with our own english word for “clandestine meeting” and “small finger food,” but that doesn’t mean that meme means what we think meme means.
Oxford English Dictionary and now even Webster’s online Dictionary have added a second definition for the word meme, so we can continue using the word in this manner that hyperbolizes our individual impact on our culture through social media. Or we can come back down to reality and start calling all those memes what the really are – cyber small talk.
Not everything we post on our social media accounts is as memeingful as we might like to believe. Showing me a picture of a monkey snuggling with a cat is an ice-breaker at best, not a culture shaker. Twitter probably comes from the latin root for “Twit” after all, hardly a culture bending force. Shaping pop culture for a week and effecting cultural trends over lifetimes is like comparing a paint ball gun to a bazooka and saying they have the same basic effect. I meme, come on people.