We tend to use the term “meme” in a way that reduces it to a cute picture with a caption. However, the word has a scientific definition, and its use has expanded beyond this casual understanding. The idea of memes can help us communicate and spread information through culture, including through social media platforms such as Facebook or Reddit. Understanding the theory of memes lets us ask smarter questions about our society’s symbols and rituals.
Memes are cultural units that get copied from person to person by imitation. It might be an idea (like carrying on your family business) or an image (like putting up pictures of your children on your refrigerator). A complete meme contains at least three elements: the idea itself, a mental representation of that idea (its embodiment), and the physical expression (the actions taken on the meme, such as putting up pictures on the refrigerator). A more general definition is “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.
They can propagate through and transmission. Think about an American teenager who sees a Chinese person wearing a funny t-shirt. The teen might make a joke similar to what’s written on the shirt or emulate their fashion sense. This new information has been imitated and reproduced without biologically passing genes across generations. It exists within our society, but it isn’t a biological organism (it doesn’t reproduce and go extinct). Memes can live in the same way that sociological concepts like “an accent” or “the taste of chocolate” exist. They’re not physical, but they are real because we all know what they are.
Meme building blocks are not limited to just images or text, check . The foundational components of memes include ideas, behaviors, expressions, social relationships/synchrony, images, words, sounds, and rituals. These meme-building blocks have been given attention by scholars who study animal behavior. For example, Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt argued that humans had evolved particular facial muscles to imitate emotional facial expressions better.
He also noted that nonhuman primates have specialized cells for specific purposes. For example, Rhesus monkeys call “danger” and apply to many different situations. This is an example of how the behavior can be used as a building block for memes, not just the expression. Social relationships can further influence the meme.
Traditions as social relationship
Traditions are one primary type of social relationship that reinforces memes through imitation. For example, children temporarily adopt their parent’s accents when they learn a language in early childhood . Other peoples’ opinions about what constitutes appropriate manners influence our manners without realizing it . It’s easy to see how traditions could reinforce or spread ideas in other contexts besides speech patterns. Rituals are another kind of social relationship that builds strong memeplexes in society. People who participate in a specific ritual will have the same experience and thus, create a shared understanding about that experience. The Christian Holy Communion is an example of a ritual where people drink wine and eat bread to remember Jesus’s sacrificial death . It has been argued that rituals are so strong because they reinforce our relationships with others through memories .
In general, memes depend on other memes existing within society. This creates what could be considered “memeplexes,” where two or more related concepts (like an accent and taste for chocolate) both reinforce each other and compete for attention within the culture. For example, the sound of car engines revving up is part of one memeplex because it supports race car culture while competing with