‘Not exactly,’ I try to explain – mentally patting myself on the back for suppressing a patronising tone by unwittingly adopting a condescending one -, ‘it’s pronounced “memeing”, like “dreaming”’.
This is a fan. I’ve actually been stopped by someone who recognises me from the picture on my column and I am very excited – especially as the photo is me on a good day. I’m not sure my fan has actually read the newspaper; I suspect he might use it to sleep under. He’s sitting on the pavement with a number of copies right outside Waitrose but it’s a sunny day and who am I to ignore an admirer.
‘All right,’ he nods at me, ‘and what’s that then?’
‘Well, “meme” is the name given to an idea that gets passed from one generation to the next, changing by imitation, replicating through culture, and being improved upon by successive generations. It was coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins, to show how ideas could act like genes, he rhymed it with ‘gene’ and it’s based on the Greek mimesis; copying or imitating. The making of fire is an early example of a meme but then so is language, April Fools’ Day and casual racism.’
He squints up at me, ‘No, what’s that then?’ He points at my shirt. I look down.
‘Oh,’ I say with some disappointment, ‘I think it’s some egg from breakfast.’
He smiles up at me. ‘Now breakfast – there’s an idea to pass on,’ and he holds his hand out.
Hubris – that’s another meme.
In fact nearly all our traditions, our commonplaces, myths and fables are ideas that have been passed on and shifted and riffed upon for generations. The most immediate and dynamically changing form of meme is the joke. ‘A man walks into a bar…’ for instance, embraces unending possibilities from ‘… and says ouch,’ to the horse that walks in with a long face – taking in the dyslexic who walked into a bra and the two blondes who walked into a bar when you’d think the first would have warned the second…
For a cultural mutation that spreads like a virus, memes seem perfect for the internet. Dawkins laments that the internet has ‘hijacked’ the meme. Internet memes are transfigured on purpose, he says, by ‘human creativity’ rather than by happy accident like genes. But then we also have IVF now shaping our genetic destiny so maybe the analogy still holds.
For the most part the internet meme formalises jokes into fairly constricted formats. Classically there’s a photo of someone, or an animal, displaying some kind of emotion which has some sympathetic bold text at the top and then a one-liner that undermines it at the bottom. Or it’s a video blooper or a cat doing something hilarious or a looping moving image infinitely repeating some excruciating moment, or a poorly judged line from pop-culture, mocked and revamped a million different ways. They are jokes so instantaneous that, like candyfloss, they seem to lose their substance even as you consume them. One of the most famous was the meme which saw hundreds of versions of Hitler’s mesmeric rant from the film ‘Downfall’ being given hilariously trivial new subtitles: from raving about bad football results to worrying about furniture clashing with curtains.
Life’s real memes though are the cultural flashpoints of our lives that we celebrate, cope with, live through and adapt, often through necessity. They’re our rites of passage which alter as civilization advances. Religions often seem to want to crystallise their ideas, to perpetuate them without adaptation through the ages. Fundamentalists will sing sacrilege the moment an ancient idea becomes adapted to modern knowledge. History shows us, however, that, like genes, the strongest ideas will adapt to survive, the ones in aspic lose their power to influence; unfortunately, they almost always go down fighting. Got a great idea? Tell someone. Let it be changed, owned and loved by others. That’s the memeing of life.