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What The Heck is a Meme? An Explainer

I don't understand memes

These strange pictures you keep seeing are mostly just a fun way for kids (and adults!) to communicate. When we feel left out of a joke or confronted with a really, really weird image, it’s our first response to shake our fists and grumble about how the Internet is rotting our children’s brains. But language evolves and summer turns into fall and, come on, some of these Internet kids are pretty funny!

What the Heck is a Meme?

As we do for most things, let's turn to Wikipedia for a nice & succinct definition:

As friendly as this definition is, trying to understand "memes" with little to no prior context is decidedly less so. Because memes (for the most part) are born and bred through the Internet, the forms they take rapidly evolve, as they are available to anyone to remix or reconstruct.

Let's put it another way. Just like both of these would be considered art:


Richard Serra & Leonardo da Vinci, respectively.

Both of these would be considered memes:


Memes for every sensibility.

So, how did we end up here?

A Little Context For You

The word “meme” first appeared in evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene, as shorthand for explaining how ideas mutate and spread, like genes being passed along through population groups.

If we define a meme as a mass circulation of an idea or in-joke, then lots of cultural phenomena that've happened before the birth of the Internet would fit the bill, from “Kilroy was here” to the line “Play it again, Sam.” Could the wieners we carved into school desks and bathroom stalls be considered memes? Probably. Although today we mostly understand memes in the context of the Internet, it can be helpful to view them through the lens of a wider cultural l