They're the cornerstone of the internet, an imperative part of continued internet ideology, and funny as all hell. But what exactly are they? Thankfully, there's answers to this question in the 2010 textbook The Complete Idiot's Guide To Memes, and even more thankfully, I spent the last 48 hours reading the 350-page meme tome so you don't have to.
Coined by Richard Dawkins in the '70s, "memes" can be just about anything, according to the guide. That's the worst part about them, and also the best. The Complete Idiot's Guide To Memes has a whole section on Dawkins, evolution, and his novel The Selfish Gene. I skipped that part. But at the end of the chapter there was a handy summary that defined early, pre-internet memes as a "cultural idea," and that's pretty accurate. A meme is an idea that spreads and duplicates within a culture. So when people started sending around the same picture on forums and adding their own jokes, you can see why the word "meme" was the perfect way to describe this phenomenon.
Fashion is an example of a meme, styles changing as they're shared through time, with influential personalities trying out new looks. The Complete Idiot's Guide To Memes chose to illustrate this with a strangely (semi?) racist take of the French and their apparent love of bell-bottomed jeans. Did you know the French love bell-bottomed jeans? I sure didn't.
But memes are more than just the ultra rare Pepes and lolcats you see plastered over your Twitter feed. Memes can also be something influential, powerful, and in some cases - physical. Like yawning, and then watching everyone else around you yawn as well.
Memes, like all cultural ideas, can be incredibly destructive.
A politician might base their entire campaign around a meme, only to see it crumble beneath them, forming an impromptu coffin for their planned career. In the same way, they might think up a slogan (which is then considered a meme!) like say, "Yes we can," and that might essentially make their whole campaign. Memes are strong as hell, and they're responsible for all the good and all the bad the world has ever seen.
According to this book, if you create a meme you're a "memetic engineer." Think about that the next time you zoom in on your friends face and put the caption "ha ha I'm dumb" on either side. You just created a meme, and in doing so, became an engineer. That's how deep this goes.
Sorry Idiots, this book really isn't for you.
About halfway through, The Complete Idiot's Guide To Memes pretty much abandons the "Idiot" in its title, and assumes for the most part that you're able to understand terms like "meme host" and "meme vector." Sure, the authors explain what these terms mean, but it's still confusing. Or maybe I'm just an idiot, I don't know. Really it's just about taking already existing terms and adding "meme" to the front. Memespreading, memeplex, memetic drift. This shit is all terminology used in the book, and you'll find yourself using it in everyday conversation just because they're fun words to say.
Respect is also a really important factor when making memes. If someone isn't respected, their meme is likely to die and swirl around the drain of the internet before disappearing, never to be seen again. Of course, memes can also have the opposite effect to what was desired - Reefer Madness was a film designed to stop teen drug use, when really all it did was encourage it - and that's because no one respected the old, wrinkly, white government of '60s America that insisted on a "war against drugs."
Where do memes come from? Milan of course!
Along with Paris and New York City, the book cites theses major cities as dictators of meme style - but is sure to remind you that memes change massively in different cultures. So don't be insensitive when someone else is sharing their memes with you. Just open your arms, and accept the meme.
The best and easiest term to use is "memeplex."
A memeplex is a complex meme, which is like a bunch of memes that have come together to form a super-meme. A good example is sampling in music.
But memes can also be disastrously hurtful and dangerous, ranging from emotional pain to physical - with some memes even capable of being deadly. Terrorism is in itself a memetic concept, the book says, with ideologies like Nazism prime examples of memes that get out of control and spread with deadly results. Exo-toxic memes are memes that control their hosts and are incredibly dangerous or fatal to people, an example being soldiers willing to fight under an exo-toxic meme (their country's flag) and risk their own lives. Sure, you can call it "patriotism," but memes don't have morals - and The Complete Idiot's Guide To Memes points this out continuously throughout its long, dense pages.
Memes can be sexy, too.
I mean, everything can be sexy if you try hard enough - and that's sort of the crux behind memes in sex. If you're sexually attracted to people with big feet, that's a meme (so says the book) - but keep in mind not everyone will share your views. Internet porn is responsible for the growth of these niche memes, constantly pushing the boundaries of what is and isn't "sexual."
Oh yeah, the author is also super confused about homosexuality.
Like, there's a whole bit in the book about how it's gay if you suck a dick but not gay if you get your dick sucked. It sounds like a South Park episode. I'm not really sure why its in the book, to be honest.
And then there's this big thing about condoms being a meme in the post-AIDS world. I'll be honest, the Memes in Sex chapter was both awesome and incredibly confusing.
And then also this bit. I'm not really sure what this bit was trying to say.
What's important is that you start thinking of memes as more than just Pepe and Rickrolling.
This book is fucking thrilled with Rickrolling. Honestly, it gets mentioned in every chapter - these dudes think Rickrolling is hilarious. And they're entitled to that. But memes like the invention of the wheel, and the creation and manipulation of fire, are far more imperative to society's continued development than some dumb video you tricked your friends into watching.
It may have been tedious, but The Complete Idiot's Guide To Memes raised some interesting questions.
While I don't recommend reading the whole thing in 48 hours, it's a fun thing to think about. The way we are, the way we work, and the way we influence each other is a philosophy that continues to evolve and will likely never stop (until humanity gets hit by another great meteor and rattles away into obscurity). So next time you share that photo of Kermit the Frog sipping tea, or Shia Lebeouf doing some weird art project, understand you're doing more than passing on a funny picture. You're helping to add to the growing memeplexity of society.