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meme also Internet meme

noun [countable]

a concept or idea that spreads very quickly via the Internet

'Memes are filling the top of Twitter's most talked about topics on the morning of July 21. The meme "#weallgotthatonefriend" takes the top position in Twitter's trending topics. We all got that one friend … "who is only a 'friend' when they need something," "that always wants advice but never takes it" or "that's never on time for anything," tweet microbloggers.'

The Independent, UK 21st July 2010

News travels fast, and since the invention of the Internet, it travels even faster. We humans love to share ideas, we love to be 'in the know' about the hottest topics. This thirst for communication, coupled with the hyper-speed by which information travels in the virtual universe, has given us a new take on the concept of the meme.

a key facet of a meme is that it is voluntary, a communication which spreads from one place to the next without any kind of compulsion or automation

A meme, or, more precisely, an Internet meme, is some kind of idea or piece of information that spreads very rapidly across a large number of Internet users. It's a bit like the online equivalent of an inside joke, a fashionable, attention-grabbing concept that a large number of Internet users become aware of. A meme often takes the form of a hyperlink, propagated via e-mail, blogs, social networking, instant messaging, etc. like a kind of virtual Chinese whisper. A meme might be a joke or quotation, a rumour or simple fact, an image, piece of video, or even a particular website – virtually any titbit that can be passed from one person to another via electronic communication. A key facet of a meme is that it is voluntary, a communication which spreads from one place to the next without any kind of compulsion or automation. Memes might stay the same as they transfer from one source to another, but can sometimes 'evolve', modified or expanded by each new recipient. They can also fade as fast as they spread, ascending in popularity and then disappearing within a matter of days.

Not surprisingly, marketing and advertising professionals have been quick to recognize the potential of the meme, which can be used to create a kind of 'buzz' around a particular product or service. This ties in with the concept of what is often referred to as viral marketing, an Internet marketing strategy which uses pre-existing social networks (real-world or virtual) to increase brand awareness or product sales. Memes can be very effective in generating positive publicity, convincing people that something is trendy and therefore useful, clever, etc. even though this may not be the view of real critics. Memes can also be exploited in the domain of politics or public relations, where they can be used as a way to shape opinions.

Background – meme or Internet meme

The word meme was first coined in 1976 by British scientist Richard Dawkins, in his bestselling book, The Selfish Gene. The book tackles a discussion of evolutionary principles, and introduces the concept of a meme in connection with the spread of cultural phenomena. In this original sense, meme refers to any unit of cultural information: ideas, behaviour, language etc, which spreads from one person to another in the real world, typically through simple verbal communication. Examples of memes given in the book include musical melodies, catchphrases, fashion and religious beliefs.

Modelled on the form of the word gene, meme is a shortened form of Greek mimēma, meaning 'something imitated'. In his theory of memetics, Dawkins argues that, echoing the way a species evolves as genes mutate, culture evolves through memes which, either accidentally or deliberately, can change as they are copied and passed from one source to another.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 6th September 2010.

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