The concept of a “meme”, a virally-transmitted cultural symbol, is prevalent across all of the developed world, but the actual word “meme” hasn’t gone viral much past the US. A meme is a piece of content (catch phrase, photo, song, prank, trend, etc) that has grown in popularity through our modern-day “word-of-mouth” ecosystem, the web.
The term “meme” has crept into American pop culture thanks to social media and most everyone knows the word. Here in the UK, I heard the term this week on a radio interview, but it was an American being interviewed and I wonder whether the word was understood by the audience at large.
The term “meme” (pronounced “meem”) was coined back in the 70s when the author Richard Dawkins was exploring the way in which cultural information spreads. He was an evolutionary biologist that wanted to investigate whether ideas could breed and mutate, like genes. His phrase, in fact, has bred and mutated to the Internet and, although he is English, it is endeared by Americans.
The word found traction in American pop culture by Buzz Feed founder Jonah Peretti who is a master of all things viral. He organised the Contagious Media Festival as a way of examining the science and culture behind the viral Internet. The group connected it back to Dawkins’s theory as the Internet was a great ecosystem for growing weird, silly and cruel web content. Hence, the rise of the modern-day usage of the word.
There are funny memes, stupid memes and mean-spirited memes. (You can decide which category “grumpy cat” falls into.) Some celebrities even try to create memes to help immortalise their name. For example, Hip Hop artist Snoop Dogg uploaded a picture of himself on Instagram with the caption “Somebody make a meme out of this pic”.
The confectionary brand Snickers even created a meme generator website where the public were invited to create a meme of who they become when they’re hungry off the success of their Brady Bunch Super Bowl commercial.
I searched around the Internet for examples of British memes and found a few websites, but the “likes” were in the hundreds at the most. There are photo-shopped photos of the Queen, her hats, jokes about the weather and the British flag, but nothing that is really trending. Perhaps British humour is a too sophisticated and cute animal pictures, LOL photos and OMG stories just don’t get viral traction.
However, I predict that the popularity of memes will continue to rise and will eventually make its way into the cultural fabric of the UK. After all, they have the TV show “The Only Way is Essex”, so Brits can’t be too refined!
This steady rise in the popularity of memes will continue to be facilitated by social media, especially Instagram, which continues to grow in power not only in the US, but abroad as well.
Greta Paa-Kerner (@gretapk) is an Associate Lecturer on innovation and digital marketing as well as a Consultant through Ganduxer Consulting.