Here’s a history lesson (from the Wikipedia article) if your only exposure to the word comes from the internet:
Memetics is a controversial theory of mental content based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution, originating from the popularization of Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It purports to be an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer.
The meme, analogous to a gene, was conceived as a “unit of culture” (an idea, belief, pattern of behaviour, etc.) which is “hosted” in one or more individual minds, and which can reproduce itself, thereby jumping from mind to mind. Thus what would otherwise be regarded as one individual influencing another to adopt a belief is seen […] as an idea-replicator reproducing itself in a new host. As with genetics, particularly under a Dawkinsian interpretation, a meme’s success may be due to its contribution to the effectiveness of its host.
Put more simply, an idea passes from person to person in a similar fashion to the way that genes (combinations within your DNA) pass from person to person.
Why does this bother me, then? Well, I think you’ve probably seen something like this:
This is a meme. Specifically, the use of Fry’s face with the text “Not sure if…” is the meme. What people normally call a meme is actually the image macro style. Annoyingly, this mistake is taking over (and, I guess, becoming a meme in and of itself. Meta.)
Here’s a list of things that are not memes:
- Random, shitty photos with random, shitty captions
So remember, when you hear someone say “I made this cool meme”, you can be assured that they are almost certainly wrong.