Semiotics is the study of ‘Signs’ and their meaning in society. Anything that can stand for something else – conveys meaning – is a Sign. The discipline is highly related to Memetics, however they come from different roots. Semiotics is older than Memetics, tracing it’s roots back to philosopher John Locke, or even Aristotle, and was formalized as a field of study by Swiss Linguist Ferdinand de Saussure in the 1900s, though it wasn't in common practice until the 1970s and 1980s, in parallel (but independent to) Richard Dawkins’ coining of the term ‘meme’ in 1976 with his book “The Selfish Gene”. Semiotics is in common practice within advertising agencies, though the term ‘Meme’ has cultural significance outside of the marketing industry, and Memetics is studied and practiced mainly by evolutionary biologists and internet commentators.
Semioticians are primarily preoccupied with how to manipulate or incorporate Signs in advertising campaigns, whereas Memeticists seem to focus more on the science of how and why memes spread and evolve. Crucially there is no application of the Darwinian Theory of Evolution to Semiotics, or as Terry Deacon put it: “Until now, classic semiotic theories have not had much to say about why certain signs persist and others do not, or why certain semiotic systems evolved the forms they now exhibit”. Memetics is an exciting new field precisely because it has a hope of providing something Semiotics hasn’t to date, an explanatory and predictive model of Semiosis – how cultural meaning arises and evolves over time – which has the potential of propelling both fields forward.
Many memes are Signs and vice versa, though there are differences. Memes are by definition any piece of cultural information copied via imitation, whereas Signs are anything cultural that means something. Letters, words, symbols are all Signs and Memes, but many culturally valuable Memes don’t mean anything, they just are: knots, cups, fire. In Semiotics the practice is to review Texts or Assets (a group of Signs within form and content, i.e. a can of beans) to discover Signs (the smallest unit of communication, the closest analogy to Memes). There is also the concept of Codes, a group of Signs that appear consistently in the same place consistently to achieve some sort of cultural effect. In Memetics this is similar to a Memeplex – a mutually symbiotic collection of Memes – though in Semiotics there’s no requirement for Codes to increase reproductive capacity of the individual Memes: the Codes are there because human creativity gets value out of them being there, not because the Memes mutually compelled humans to spread them. Though perhaps Girardian Mimesis – which describes how people choose who to copy memes from – has the potential to bring the two disciplines together on the importance of the human actors in why memes spread.
One of the chief criticisms of Memetics come from Semiotics, which is that the concept of meme is a primitivized concept of Sign. Signs have a Triadic nature: the Representation, Interpretant, and the Object itself. For example if I wanted to communicate to you I saw a Tree (Object), I could write the letters ‘T-R-E-E’ (Representation), which you make sense of by the associations these letters trigger in your memory (Interpretant). In other words, a ‘meme’ is a degenerate sign, which includes only its ability of being copied. Though this is true of many important signs, including words themselves. Both ‘memes’ and ‘signs’ suffer from lack of a coherent, commonly agreed to, and replicable definition, which hinders scientific exploration of both fields. Memes and Signs like ‘Batman’ are made up of themselves of other Memes and Signs like ‘orphan’, ‘playboy’, ‘vigilante’, which causes an infinite circular definition – infinite semiosis – leading to much confusion as to how to pragmatically categorize what a Meme or Sign actually is. In that respect, Semioticians and Memeticists are in the same boat and would benefit from working together.
Exploring Semiotics in Marketing
Icon, Index, and Symbol — Three Categories of Signs
Meme is a degenerate sign
Memes, genes, and signs: Semiotics in the conceptual interface of evolutionary biology and memetics
Memetics vs semiotics
Semiotic Codes: Metonymic, Analogical, Displaced and Condensed
Semiotics for Beginners
semiotics: study of signs
Using Semiotics in Marketing: How to Achieve Consumer Insight for Brand Growth and Profits
What is difference between semiotics and memetics?