Time for new vocabulary for Dawkins and Memes

The word “meme” comes from Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As Ryan Miller outlines in “Logics: The Fundamentals of Memetic Participation,” it refers to the spread of cultural or societal ideas between people. This wildly broad definition comes up when talking about various different concepts and ideas that seem, at a cursory glance, only tangentially related to Dawkins’ initial definition. Two such examples are the Slender Man meme, which appears regularly in discussions about gothic and horror fiction, and the contemporary use of the word meme for images on social media sites.


What relates these two “memes” seems to be the fact that they are images, they are altered in some way, and they are spread across the internet. Neither seems to be related to Dawkins’ concept other than to tar it with the broad strokes of the same brush and remark that they are both part of “culture.” In fact, trying to pigeon hole Dawkins and contemporary internet memes together would seem more likely to elicit the production of a Mocking Spongebob meme than an acceptance of them being in the same category.


There is a necessity for a new vocabulary around the internet, and the idea of memes is no different. In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) word of the year was “selfie.” In 2016, it was an emoji. Language changes, develops and evolves throughout time. For example, the idea of taking a “selfie,” of sorts, did not originate as just a narcissistic pastime; Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso painted self-portraits. As languages change, words can lose their original meaning, see the Ted post linked below.
With the near complete ubiquity of the internet in people’s lives today, ideas can spread faster than ever (like…an original meme?). When words catch a meaning online it sticks. The word “meme” no longer has anything significant, really, to do with Dawkins’ definition from the 1970s. The word meme, to those in society and those online, refers solely and exclusively to the internet meme that your Facebook feed is awash with. When you read a book, you don’t learn about who the first person to make paper was, or who first coined the term “book,” or where the idea of punctuation came from (which would only have loosely existed as a concept before words were written down). Knowledge about novels beginning as a genre in the early 17th Century is not strictly necessary to a broad understanding of what novels are and the role they play in society. Much like the word “meme.”


The internet has sped up the evolution of words in society. Words develop out of the internet, “text speak” for example, and the word “meme” now means something vastly different to what Dawkins originally suggested. His definition describes a significant cultural and social phenomenon, no doubt, but it is a very broad social observation and not closely related to what the word “meme” means today. His definition is now less relevant to the contemporary internet meme as the keyboard that it is created on. It’s time for a new vocabulary.



http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/slender-man – Slender Man meme

http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/mocking-spongebob – Mocking Spongebob meme

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2013 – “Selfie”: 2013 Word of the Year

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2015  – “’Face with tears of joy’ emoji”: 2015 Word of the Year

https://ideas.ted.com/20-words-that-once-meant-something-very-different/ – 20 Words that once meant something very different.


2 thoughts on “Time for new vocabulary for Dawkins and Memes

  1. Yesterday’s class and your blog post have stressed a need to focus on the rupture between the earlier academic meaning of meme as cultural unit and the later public meaning of meme as digital product of culture. Limor Shifman offers a loose chronology in *Digital Keywords* (2016) in her entry “Meme”, but the divergent evolution of this term remains to be fully mapped. Unquestionably, however, memes and memetic factors of transmission (drawn in part from the biological moorings of the Dawkins term) have become an integral means of understanding Internet culture.

    Excellent blog post by the way.


  2. Much in the same way as words change and evolve with the cultures that create and embrace them, can it not be said that Meme not has two disparate definitions and that while they might be tangentially related, they can share the same name? Mimetic aspects of culture can be defined easily as meme as can the cat pictures which surround us on the internet, can the two not exist at the same time?


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