What do the bizzare images, giphy’s and videos we see on our screens have to do with evolution? Although it may not seem like it, memes might be the next tool to make sense of (and reflect) on our increasingly hybrid virtual and physical environment.
Since Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, we have been aware of the ever changing and evolving species this Earth inhabits. Changes that allow an organism to better adapt to its environment will help it survive and have more offspring. Humans, unlike other species, have always used technology to adapt to their environment, like making fire, for example. By gaining knowledge and skills, we have been evolving rapidly in the way we think, live, build and organize ourselves. This cultural evolution is more profound and effective to understand the human species, than Darwin’s genetic evolution.
How can we understand evolutionary change according to this line of thought? What non-genetic units bring about change? One evolutionary biologist became well known for his response to this question. In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argued that we humans, and all other animals, are basically survival machines for the genes we carry in all our cells. These genes aim to replicate by way of propagation or infection. But hold your evolutionary horses, there is more.
Dawkins figured that although evolution made species adapt over time through the multiplication of genes, people changed significantly and in an instantaneously shorter time through ‘memes’, the common denominator for all the units of popular culture. The term meme is a combination of a fun rhyme with genes and the Greek word mimeme, meaning ‘to imitate’. Memes behave much like genes, Dawkins argued, replicating themselves in order to survive. Genes spread by bodily reproduction or by viral infection, while memes spread by imitation, leaping from brain to brain. Your great-grandparents spread memes long before you were born, by humming their favorite song in the streets or quoting a book they liked. Whether a meme sticks around, is just as dependent on ‘natural’ selection as whether a variation of genes survive: they both have to contain the right code to ensure a long survival.
The idea of God in religion is in the cultural environment replicated through text, speech, music and art, and still enjoys a big impact on the world. In other words, God is a meme. Sometimes meme complexes originate when memes elaborate on each other. In modern medicine for example, the meme that diseases are transmitted by bacteria sparked the meme of antibiotics as a potential cure. The meme-complex of modern medicine is one of trial and error, where the most effective and curative memes survive. Memes change little by little over time; but how do these changes take place?
Memes are information copied by imitation from person to person. In the course of this process alterations take place, either willingly or by accident, and can create a cultural change when that alteration is being picked up by others. Language is a clear example of how flexible culture can be. Slang would be a linguistic meme with a temporal nature, whereas a dialect can have a more permanent influence.
Some memes have existed for ages, some go viral, while others die out quickly. Dawkins approached the survival value of memes just like that of genes. Think of a good joke, a type of meme people love retelling. Dawkins would ask: what was its longevity? In other words, how long will the joke stay in someone’s mind? How about it’s fecundity? Will the joke catch on within its intended audience? And what about its copying-fidelity? Is the joke still the same or did the storyteller change something?
Memes show how we could position ourselves in evolutionary thinking
Memes are basically anything with an idea behind it. That seems simple yet overwhelming at the same time. Memes show how we could position ourselves in evolutionary thinking. Humans are not only using genes and memes to adapt and understand their environment, but through technology, we have been changing this very environment immensely. We then need new memes to cope with it.
With digital communication, a new possibility of sharing memes arose. Thus, the internet gave birth to its first meme: a dancing baby gif that hopped into everyone's screen; a symbolism of the early days of the world wide web. As the environment for information sharing was now both virtual and physical, internet memes started to take on different shapes and forms.
Even though the virtual environment enables memes to be shared more rapidly and globally, most memes are no longer exposed to a heterogeneous ‘crowd’. Instead, they tend to circulate in the same bubbles and echo chambers that define communities on the internet. But internet memes don’t just stay on the internet; they sometimes venture into the physical realities, too. Influencing the 2016 US elections, the Pepe the Frog meme is a prime example of a meme escaping its virtual village and impacting our daily lives on more than one level.
Internet memes interact strongly with the political sphere. Political candidates' faces are no longer only on a pamphlet or poster, but shared through social media. It started with the Shepard Fairey’s Hope poster of Obama that went viral and had many alterations since. In the run-up to the 2016 elections, Donald Trump publicly identified himself with the meme of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon that was appropriated by online alt-right groups.
In its PNG and JPG form, the most famous internet memes are visual pieces with a standardized and short “top text/bottom text” format. Sounds like LOLCat, the Socially Awkward Penguin meme and Philosoraptor, all representing the characters of oversimplified archetypes. Stylistically, we’ve moved past this format and memes have now evolved into a more effortless, nonchalant form of expression. They can now be found perhaps with a screenshot of a social media caption above the image.
The history of the internet-meme can sometimes be read in its quality, like a crumpled flyer that’s passed through many hands. German artist Hito Steyerl notes how many “poor images” circle on the internet, worsening it’s quality as the meme is being saved, reformatted and sent again. The history of it’s sharing can often be seen in its references. Internet memes are meant to be transformed. Images or texts turn into models with endless versions. Think of Good Guy Greg, a kind character that acts in a different story every time the caption changes.
Memes now tap into feelings of millenials dealing with overwhelming future insecurities
More recently, the evolution of these internet-memes seem to have taken a surrealistic turn. As they started with humorous texts of Advice Animals, the memes now tap into feelings of millenials dealing with overwhelming future insecurities in a neoliberal world, where boundaries between fake and real information are becoming more obscured. On platforms such as 4chan and reddit, the newest type of ironic and nihilistic memes have evolved into something so distorted and aloof from its original reference that they can only be understood by a targeted group of insiders, the ones who have an idea of the original reference or history.
There’s an incentive to share a meme when it’s relatable. Because we understand memes within our own frame of reference, they are propagating and sustaining internet communities. These communities identify themselves by ‘semi-collective consumption of content’, as Morris Kolman phrased it, resulting in frames of reference that make up internet communities. If you stumble upon a meme that you don’t unnderstand, the internet works it’s promised magic: you can look it up at the website Know Your Meme. However, since social media are shared through social media that runs on a business model, it wants to keep the user engaged as long as possible. You are shown (and you share) relatable memes within your own meme pool, your own echo chamber. In short, you are very unlikely to encounter memes you wouldn’t agree on, or wouldn’t find relatable. To ‘Know Your Meme’, therefore gets a different meaning: it is really an imperative to know your own subculture.
The memesphere doesn’t concern the internet only. What happens within internet communities has repercussions outside of the virtual sphere. To begin with, the different kinds of content - visual, quick and devoid of context - influence the way we process information as we become more used to them. What we see and learn on the internet affects our understanding of the world and we, in turn, change the memesphere by creating, transforming or sharing memes. As mentioned before: we are co-evolving with memes.
The virtual memesphere is likely to have an ever growing impact on our lives. As humans and machines gradually grow towards each other, the virtual and physical spheres merge too. In this sense, speaking of ‘internet memes’ as opposed to memes that procreate culture, makes a duality that is no longer applicable. ‘Memes are vehicles for reflection’, said Morris Kolman, meaning that memes help to reflect and deal with the new environment of the digital era. An era in which we are constantly connected, saturated with information and individually objectified. Internet memes, just like the memes Richard Dawkins introduced, help us relate to, reflect on and evolve with the next nature.
Many thanks to Geert Lovink and Morris Kolman for their in-depth work on memes. Graphics by Mieke Gerritzen.