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In November 2015, photographer Antonio Guillem posted an image on a stock photo database with the title of 'disloyal man with his girlfriend looking at another girl.' That photo was the start of the future.

There's a very high chance you've seen the photo and the numerous ways it has been used to create memes. Here's a few such examples:

Memes are culturally sticky. Once you receive one, you've taken in that piece of information and passed it onto another person or five, and in turn, they pass it on. That little photo/text combo has carried its code through hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions, of hosts.

Suddenly it actually seems quite serious, something we should pay attention to. And as we know, we are not very good at paying attention to the spread of anything viral and taking it seriously…


Memes are so common in our lives yet I've found myself unable to a) adequately explain what they are, and b) make one myself. So I'm going to try now.

[On a side note, if anyone ever asks me how to pronounce meme I nearly always say me-me. Cruel I know.]

The word 'meme' was used by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene as a way of describing how an idea, behaviour, or style rapidly spreads from person to person in a culture. He wasn't talking about the internet or cat gifs. Memes, said Dawkins, reproduce by copying from a nervous system to another one, either by communication or imitation.

Here's what Wikipedia says because I'm feeling lazy today:

"Memes, analogously to genes, vary in their aptitude to replicate; successful memes remain and spread, whereas unfit ones stall and are forgotten. Thus, memes that prove more effective at replicating and surviving are selected in the meme pool.
Memes first need retention. The longer a meme stays in its hosts, the higher its chances of propagation are. When a host uses a meme, the meme's life is extended. The reuse of the neural space hosting a certain meme's copy to host different memes is the greatest threat to that meme's copy. A meme that increases the longevity of its hosts will generally survive longer. On the contrary, a meme that shortens the longevity of its hosts will tend to disappear faster. However, as hosts are mortal, retention is not sufficient to perpetuate a meme in the long term; memes also need transmission."

The word 'meme' is today used in a less biological sense, but otherwise works the same way.

A meme is more than a joke with a photo because it must hook into the zeitgeist and it must spread quickly. It needs oxygen to survive. It must be understood at an instant, it must be (usually) amusing enough to make us share it, and it must have direct relevance to the goings-on in the world and your life. If you get it, you get it and you're in the group. If you don't, sorry, you're out.

Look! I made my own meme.

It's easy to underestimate this form of communication because it seems so trivial. But, as I discussed in-depth a while ago on the whole GME saga in the US, memes can be behind the movement of millions of dollars and political decision-making. They can be funny, they can also get very ugly. Considering how cheap they are to produce, they can have immense power.

I find myself often coming back to thinking about memes, stuck on how they feel so trivial on the one hand yet so important on the other. Good communication is finding ways to say things clearly and succinctly, or as Jack Butcher puts it: "Great communication maximizes compression while maintaining (or increasing) fidelity." Memes are the perfect carriers of information in this respect.

Look! I made another one.

I wonder if there are many people who are professional memers? I wonder if one day people will be studying how to build memes and paying for courses? Or is it just a weird passing fad?

Well, Instagram hired Saint Hoax to cover the Met Gala as its first-ever meme correspondent this year. “Memes are basically editorial cartoons for the internet age," said Hoax. "The power of a meme lies in its transmissibility and unique knack for being cross-cultural.”

At their best good memes act like the jester in courts, the only people able to speak the truth to authority without being sent to the guillotines. At their worst, memes can spread lies and disinformation at light speed.

I'm really not sure how memes will progress but what I do know is they are a dominant form of online communication today, a way to amuse, to share thoughts and feelings, and a way to signal your views to your tribes. Knowing how to meme today can be an immense power.

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