This paper is about human memetics, which is the study of how memes act in society. More specifically, this paper will focus on the relationship between memes and social changes. A meme plays a large role in social change by allowing people to spread new ideas widely (and quickly) throughout communities. Memes also allow for major social changes because they are easily adaptable; if what was once considered ‘normal’ becomes unpopular, all that needs to happen is for one person or group to create a meme with different values than previously held ones. This allows the creator(s) of this meme to dictate everyone’s cultural beliefs simply by controlling what memes are accepted into society. Thus, it can be said that the power behind creating new memes can change society.
The following sections will describe more about what a meme is, where it comes from, how it is spread throughout communities, and its history in human civilization. Through this explanation of what memes are, I will explain how this concept changes society individually and culturally.
First of all, it is important to understand what a meme is to see why I believe they have such an effect on society. A meme (pronounced ‘meem’) 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” (Hancock). A meme acts like DNA does in nature; the only difference is that memes are made by humans and transferred from person to person instead of being inherited. Just like DNA, memes contain the codes necessary to build organisms. This means that every meme contains the information needed to be passed on successfully because its purpose is survival. Memes work similarly to genes because they code for proteins, but protein synthesis isn’t their primary function (Hancock.)
As mentioned above, memetics studies how different aspects of culture can be broken down into memes. However, what exactly makes up a meme? What pieces of information do they carry that enable them to spread throughout communities? In general, three features up a meme: ideas, behaviors, and beliefs (Hancock). These three things are all related to one another. For example, if society believes that women should be submissive to men, they will also have this behavior of being submissive towards men because of their ideas about a woman’s role in life. Furthermore, these ideas are shaped by beliefs passed down through culture. Visit Meme Scout to see an amazing collection of memes.
These memes themselves can be further divided into smaller pieces called micro-memes, which are “smaller elements of meaning” (Santayana) or components. At this level, the actual coding of the meme itself occurs; this includes symbols, icons, gestures, words, etc… Micro-memes are broken down even further, but I will not go into those details because they are not as important to this discussion.
For memes to continue to be passed from person to person, certain elements must be present: “variation, selection, and retention” (Hancock). These three things work together in a way that allows for the best possible genes (or memes) to spread throughout society. Variation is basically just breaking down information into smaller pieces so that it can be stored. Selection is where one of these pieces of information will be chosen as ‘better than the others because it contains more beneficial traits such as being easier to understand or expressed better than other options. And finally, retention ensures that this particular piece of information is stored long-term instead of degraded over time (Hancock).
These ideas can explain how memes influence society because they are essentially just ideas that spread from person to person instead of being inherited. Memes themselves carry information that is important for them to survive. This information contains codes that replicate and draw up new copies of the original meme to continue spreading throughout society. One example of this would be a religious belief such as heaven and hell: people who believe in these concepts pass down their beliefs by explaining the importance of going to church or praying before bed, and if others follow suit, eventually everyone will know about it (and hopefully adopt those beliefs as well.)