Have you ever WONDERed about what aliens would think if they landed on Earth today? What conclusions would they draw from watching television? What would they think about human beings after spending a couple hours surfing the Internet?
Based upon the Internet alone, they’d probably conclude that humans are obsessed with funny pictures of cats. After all, that’s what the Internet is mainly for, right? If you’re like most kids, you probably enjoy using the Internet to amuse yourself, whether it’s looking at pictures of funny cats, dancing babies, or who knows what else!
Did you realize that those pictures of cats dressed as humans with funny captions, as well as most of the other things you find humorous on the Internet, all fall under the same description? We call them Internet memes. (Memes is pronounced like “dreams.”)
Although exact definitions vary, memes can broadly be considered or cultural ideas or symbols that are virally transmitted via the Internet. Like the flu virus, that latest funny cat video passes from one person to another quickly, until it’s been seen thousands — even millions! — of times within a matter of days or weeks.
The word “meme” comes from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins used the word to explain how cultural information and memories spread from person to person. “Meme” comes from the Greek word mimema, which means “something imitated.” You can think of an Internet meme as a mimicked theme that includes a catchy phrase or movement or something that makes it instantly memorable.
Memes are not something new. To the contrary, memes go way, way back to the days when cultural ideas were spread through word of mouth as stories, fables, jokes, and new expressions. Internet memes, on the other hand, have only been around as long as the Internet culture that transmits them.
Dawkins believes that Internet memes are different from older, traditional memes. The culture of the Internet and the speed at which it moves not only helps to transmit an idea, but it also simultaneously makes it possible to build upon and evolve that idea rapidly.
In the past, a cultural idea might spread from person to person via speech. Today, an Internet meme can spread much more quickly via emails, text messages, instant messages, and website links. By the time a new Internet meme has been shared millions of times, it often has evolved into something that resembles the original but with the collective additions of hundreds or thousands of other people.
Most Internet memes are based upon things people find funny. They appeal naturally to a wide audience. Who doesn’t like to laugh? Internet memes can be based upon other concepts, though. For example, it’s possible to find Internet memes about urban myths, commentary, and a variety of other subjects.
Most Internet memes are created and spread by teens and post-adolescents. These generations have grown up in the Internet world and feel most comfortable sharing their experiences with others via media and the Internet.