Richard Dawkins (2006) created the term “meme” as a way of describing how culture is transmitted. Memes are key to this transmission through sharing and longevity. The concept of meme grew in an online presence (Shifman, 2009).
When the word meme began gaining popularity, I (embarrassingly) thought it was “Me – Me” because the memes were all about me. There were “25 Things about Me” and “Four Questions about Me” notes in Facebook (remember those?). Then there was “Gratuitous Picture of Yourself Wednesday” (Thanks, Tumblr!). Famous bloggers posted their first memes. A coloring book was made.
Recently, Colin McGinn discusses the role of memes in his New York Times article, Memes, Dreams & Themes. McGinn argues that memes spread like a virus through each other’s minds. When we have a commercial jingle or pop song stuck in our head, it’s a meme. Memes are not always silly – they are closely related to culture. Memes spread culture and ideas. They can spread art, ideologies, and unwritten rules.
McGinn asks us to consider the difference between memes (those that are “mentally manipulated”) and those that are themes (those that are “genuinely good,” like, say, the oxford comma). Intermixed within the question, is another question to consider: if a meme spreads, who is to say it’s not good? Perhaps Gratuitous Picture of Yourself Wednesday (GPOYW) isn’t actually gratuitous, but these photos may be empowering or expressive. Is determining the value of a meme similar to determining the value of art?
I think the bigger question to the value of a meme lies at an exterior level: How are memes spreading? What makes a meme circulate? Memetic and cultural circulation seem closely linked to engagement, emotion, and creativity of the audience.
Likewise, literature about memorable messages tell us the ideas that stick are closely related to individual emotion and relatability (or recognition) in addition to an audience and value. These characteristics are linked to storytelling as a way of generating meaning. When your idea or product sits within a narrative or you can place it in your own narrative, ideas and memes can stick and spread.
And this is important, because marketing your selfie means people have to notice it.