Let me begin with a digression on memes. Like a virus, a meme can spread uncontrollably in the right environment and infect millions with an idea or goal. This, of course, is good for such advocates of social ideals as Greenpeace or PETA, but like viruses, there can be bad memes that do more damage than good. More, it seems, than good or socially constructive memes.
A meme is the self-propagating cultural equivalent of a virus*, but rather than spreading its DNA, a meme spreads ideas, cultural practices, thoughts, symbols, ideals, aesthetics and icons of popular imagination.
Like a virus, a meme requires the communication between people to spread – talk, mail, the medium of literature, TV or music, and of course the Internet. A good example of a wildfire meme in popular culture was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Another pop-culture meme is the spread of tattoos as fashion. Fashion itself is a seasonal meme, not unlike a seasonal cold.
But there can be bad memes as well; memes that poison, memes that distort and damage. Similar to Ebola virus or prions, these memes can jump cultures like viruses jump species.
Anti-semitism – disturbingly on the rise in France and the USA today – is a bad and infectious meme. So is any form of religious fundamentalism – look at how the meme of the jihad has spread across the Middle East. Computer hoaxes like the email chain letter that promises you riches if you forward the email to everyone on your mailing list, is another bad meme albeit more innocuous. Donald Trump’s tweets become memes almost as soon as he posts them.
One of the factors that accelerates a meme’s spread is its brevity. In an age when deep reading is a dying art and skim reading is the new normal (to disastrous effect ion our collective education and society), a meme finds easy access to hosts online.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976 to describe evolutionary principles help explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. As Wikipedia points out,
He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, and beliefs (notably religious belief, clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches).
Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Theorists point out that memes which replicate the most effectively spread best, and some memes may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.