Memes and the Atomic Units of Culture

Exploring the Past, Present, and Future of Memes

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Memes and the Atomic Units of Culture

In its simplest definition, a meme is a unit of culture transfer. Memes are how ideas move between people via culture and—as with all forms of communication—the internet dramatically accelerated the speed and scale with which those ideas move.

To explore memes, I’ll dive into their past, present, and future.

  1. The Past: The Origin of “Meme”

  2. The Present: Memes in Modern Culture

  3. The Future: Memes & the Creator Economy

And, naturally, I’ll be including my own memes throughout.

The Past: The Origin of “Meme”

The word “meme” has surprisingly academic origins. “Meme” was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins was looking for a word to convey “a unit of cultural transmission”—the cultural equivalent of a gene. He wrote:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. “Mimeme” comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like “gene”. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to “memory,” or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with “cream”.

Dawkins went on to give examples of memes: songs, ideas, nursery rhymes, catchphrases, fashion trends. From the beginning, “meme” captured a broader definition of cultural transmission than the text-overlaid images we think of today.

The first internet meme is considered the sideways smiley :-) It was first used in 1982 by an American computer scientist. The concept of internet memes was formalized a decade later, when WIRED magazine called a “net meme” a “contagious idea” online. Since the 90s, memes have morphed and metastasized across the internet.

Sites like Reddit, 4chan, and Twitter became breeding grounds for memes. Here’s a fun example: there used to be a tradition on 4chan that every Saturday, people would post pictures of cats. It was, naturally, called Caturday. One Caturday, someone posted a photo of their cat with the caption “I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?” The image escaped 4chan and infiltrated the web, becoming one of the first viral memes. Others followed, from Roflcopter to Admiral Ackbar’s “It’s a trap!” to Boromir’s “One does not simply…”

And—using Dawkins’ broader definition of meme—other units of cultural transmission grew like wildfire across the internet. In the mid-2000s, YouTube enabled the earliest video memes—“Rickrolling” is often considered the first. Other video memes followed—Charlie Bit My Finger (the most-viewed video on YouTube from 2007 to 2010), Leave Britney Alone, Cash Me Ousside / How Bah Dah. Other memes were single words: bae, selfie, plank, fail.

Over the years, experts have studied memes and identified two central attributes: creative reproduction and intertextuality. Let me explain each by generating a simple meme:

Creative reproduction is the remixing of content. It’s me overlaying my own text onto this famous image of Oprah. Anyone else can overlay their own text and personalize the meme.

Intertextuality is the combination of different contexts. In order to fully “get” the meme above, you need two pieces of cultural context: (1) you need to recognize the famous Oprah “You get a car! YOU get a car!” moment, and (2) you need to understand that people share memes (often lots of memes) among friends. The academic Limor Shifman gives another example of intertextuality: combining Mitt Romney’s famous “binders full of women” comment with an image of papers flying everywhere from Psy’s “Gangnam Style” music video. This meme indexes political and cultural discourses of both America and Korea.

Side note: it’s very fun to read academic papers about memes. My favorite is called “Y U No Go Viral: The Emerging Science of Memes” 🤓

The Present: Memes in Modern Culture

Today, memes are ubiquitous; they’re impossible to escape.

They arise from the most obscure corners of the internet. The image directly above was originally a stock image labeled “Disloyal man walking with his girlfriend and looking amazed at another seductive girl.” And memes cut across culture: that same image, for instance, makes an excellent Zoom virtual background:

It’s not the image itself that drives virality; it’s the creativity of people around the world, adding new text and keeping memes relevant and fresh.

Dawkins returned in 2013 to redefine memes in the context of the internet. He wrote that an internet meme is a meme deliberately altered by human creativity, a “hijacking of the original idea”. Whenever I picture memes spreading, I envision those scenes from movies where gossip spreads at lightning speed—from America to Singapore in that scene from Crazy Rich Asians or in the school hallways of Easy A. As one writer put it: “Putting any idea out into the digital world is like putting glitter in front of a fan—it goes all over the place.”

Once dismissed as silly and trivial, memes have become an important vehicle for political messages, social causes, and global movements. In America, both sides of the aisle weaponize memes to bring down the enemy:

A year ago, we were all talking about how Michael Bloomberg paid meme accounts for sponsored political ads. (Side note: that feels like 10 years ago.)

Bloomberg was criticized for treating meme culture as something that can be bought, but the approach was undeniably savvy: memes spread ideas at a speed few methods of communication can match.

That ease and speed of communication also has its dark side. The most famous example is Pepe the Frog. White supremacists coopted the image of Pepe and used memes to turn him into a symbol of racism and hate. The Anti-Defamation League ultimately put Pepe on its list of hate symbols and Pepe’s creator even killed off his beloved frog in a comic strip to try to put an end to the memes (it didn’t work).

Cycles of meme creation, viral growth, and eventual death have also accelerated. The proliferation of content and creativity online has shortened a meme’s half-life. A decade ago, memes hung around for years; today, they rarely make it weeks. While we may instantly recognize the “This is fine” dog or the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” meme from the 2010s, few will remember the “I’m Not a Cat” meme of February 2021 beyond vague recollection.

The Future: Memes & the Creator Economy

The internet accelerated the shareability of memes, but the creation of memes remained full of friction. It took a fair amount of work to make a meme and, as a result, few people were meme creators. But the internet is becoming more participatory—with new tools democratizing creation and unlocking creativity—and meme culture will be no different. The building blocks for this future will be “cultural legos” and “software legos”. Let’s look at both in turn.

Cultural legos let you remix and adapt other people’s creations to make your own unique content. The best example has historically been music sampling. Many of the most successful songs in history sample other songs. The iconic hook from Britney Spears’ “Toxic”? It’s from a Bollywood song. The blaring horns in Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”? They’re from The Chi-Lites 1970 song “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So)”. Ariana Grande’s smash “7 Rings” samples The Sound of Music’s “My Favorite Things” (Rodgers & Hammerstein receive 90% of the song’s royalties), and Fergie’s “Fergalicious” is literally just J.J. Fad’s “Supersonic” but with Fergie’s lyrics.

TikTok videos are memes boiled down to sub-60-second clips. Features like sounds, “Duet”, and “Stitch” become legos that let you build with other people’s creations. TikTok’s innovation is that it lets you sample culture.

In addition to cultural legos, software legos let you easily make that content. Last summer, I wrote about how TikTok revolutionized video creation with “no code” tools all within the app. Whereas YouTube required specialized knowledge and expensive equipment to produce content, TikTok required only your smartphone:

I extended this topic in The Building Blocks of Tech, arguing that creator tools are both an enterprise trend and a consumer trend. The 12-year-old building Roblox games will grow up to be the 22-year-old building Airtable work apps.

One of my favorite recent pieces was Eugene Wei’s piece on TikTok, American Idle—I highly recommend giving it a read. Wei explains that when he worked at AWS, Jeff Bezos encouraged the concept that complex things are built from very simple building blocks, or “primitives”. These primitives are the software legos that make creation easy—they’re the editing tools and augmented reality filters that TikTok gives you; they’re the Apps in Airtable’s marketplace; they’re the custom features you use to design your Shopify store. Wei writes: “The reason to design your primitives with the utmost elegance is to maximize combinatorial optionality.” In other words, make tools easy-to-use, and people will come up with all kinds of amazing creations.

These creator tools have been the missing piece in meme culture. Enter Piñata Farms, one of our investments at Index Ventures.

Piñata makes it easy to create your own memes, using computer vision to let you overlay faces and logos and text on moving images. Turner Novak is perhaps today’s meme king 👑:

People can share Piñata memes across the internet. Like TikTok, memes are watermarked, meaning that viral distribution acts as a powerful organic acquisition channel for Piñata.

Richard Dawkins identified several traits of successful memes. Among them was “fecundity”, the rate at which a meme can be copied and spread. In the past, making a meme meant using Adobe Photoshop or a clunky online meme generator. Fecundity was low. Piñata Farms accelerates fecundity, making creation as fast and easy as distribution.

Final Thoughts

Memes might seem like a frivolous topic, but they’ve become the atomic units of culture. Understanding them is critical to understanding how people communicate and how ideas spread.

They also embody what I write about here in Digital Native and what I’m fascinated by: how technology and culture intersect. Culture and memes are now indistinguishable: memes reflect culture, magnify culture, and create culture. And the future of memes is, like much of the consumer internet, about creation—more people remixing and sharing. (Maybe the original creator of a viral meme will even be able to share in the value created through a non-fungible token—but that’s an idea to unpack another time).

Memes have come a long way in the last decade. I’ll never forget meeting GirlWithNoJob at a party in New York when I was 22, and being floored that she did in fact have a job, and that her job was to run a meme account with three million Instagram followers. (She gets paid $10,000 per sponsored post.) Those were the early innings of meme culture, and the rise of social platforms and now creator tools have since revolutionized both meme distribution and creation.

Whether or not you realize it, you’re part of meme culture. If you’ve ever said “TGIF” or bought a “Life is good” t-shirt or done the Ice Bucket Challenge, you’ve been an active participant. You absorbed something from pop culture, you understood it, and then you adapted it for your own context and use. We’ve all been consumers of culture and—consequently—we’ve all been consumers of memes. In the future, we might all be creators too.

Sources & Additional Reading

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