When people hear the term ‘meme’, they think of internet memes: a viral image with white text superimposed on it, also called ‘image macros’. But the term was actually hijacked from an evolutionary biologist who coined it in 1976, before the invention of the internet. Richard Dawkins described Memes in his best-selling book “The Selfish Gene” as ‘units of culture’ that spread via imitation, an analogy to how biological Genes spread through reproduction. Genes replicate via DNA, but memes use imitation. Any idea copied from person to person is a meme, whether it’s done by repeating another’s actions, regurgitating their words, or printing a copy of a book.
Memes are ideas, behaviors or styles that jump from brain to brain – successful ones get remembered, the rest die out by being forgotten. Memes explain how we evolve in ways that can’t be explained by our genes. Nurture vs Nature. Genetic evolution occurs over the course of millions of years, whereas on the internet memetic evolution can cycle multiple times per day. But memes don’t have to be frivolous posts on social media: they can be ways of making pots, building arches or growing corn. The history of humanity is the story of inventing ever better technology for spreading memes. The memes are far outpacing the genes, and it’s the former that are responsible for most of the advancement we’ve seen in the past 10,000 years.
A meme is a template: a vehicle for self-replicating information. People process images 60,000x faster than text, so memes tend to be visual. Using fewer words also helps with processing time, and emotion travels faster than logic. Dawkins likened some memes, like certain religions or cults, to ‘mind viruses’, hijacking the thoughts of a person and making them do something detrimental to their survival. However most memes spread not through malice or for entertainment, but because they’re useful. If I discover a new way to make a spear, or farm crops, or build computers, and I share that with you, now we’re both more likely to survive. Though it’s often not the lack of scientific breakthroughs that holds us back, it’s creativity in using what we already have. The wheel existed for over 5,000 years until in 1970 someone thought to attach them to a suitcase. “The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed”.
Every marketing campaign can be broken down into its underlying memes – phrases, colors, fonts, images, formats – to understand what really makes it tick. Some combinations of memes work better than others. They evolve naturally in a population, through word of mouth. The resulting changes to fashions, trends, and culture drive our society forward. Marketers are in the business of interfering with natural selection – playing god – by deliberately seeding, altering and amplifying memes to see what works to drive sales. The best marketers are the ones that know the most memes, and how to remix them to trigger a desired action. That’s all experience is: drawing from memory things that have worked in the past, and knowing how they might be combined. Memetics is the discipline to intentionally seek out a wider meme pool, and strategically select what memes you’ll use vs which ones you’ll discard. This is important work. If you find the right combination of memes you win the market.