Within the digital sphere, Internet memes are a particularly persuasive piece of user-generated content due to a number of unique characteristics. They are important artifacts of individual expression and visual rhetoric that adds to cultural communication and understanding.
The idea of the meme was introduced by Richard Dawkins, who theorized that just as a gene is a unit of human transmission, a meme is a unit of cultural transmission.19 The word itself is derived from the Ancient Greek word mimeme, which means “to imitate,” and closely aligns with “mimic” and “memory.” A meme carries cultural ideas that are transmitted from person to person through various forms of mimicry and replication. That cultural unit evolves and mutates, similarly to a gene, and either succeeds and flourishes or becomes extinct. Some pre-internet examples include the bible, the national anthem, and the Kilroy Was Here image circulated in World War II. For Dawkins, the meme served as a catalyst for cultural jumps in human evolution, much like a gene served to further biological evolution.
Memetics, and the validity of its study, has been debated ever since with authors such as Susan Blackmore, Aaron Lynch, and Richard Brodie contributing to the discussion, and has had a resurgence in debate as theories apply to modern digital culture and the Internet meme. The Internet meme has unique characteristics that must be considered when defining and studying its place in memetic theory. Dawkins addressed the difference:
[T]he very idea of the meme, has itself mutated and evolved in a new direction. An Internet meme is a hijacking of the original idea. Instead of mutating by random chance, before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity. In the hijacked version, mutations are designed—not random—with the full knowledge of the person doing the mutating.20
Limor Shifman further defined the Internet meme in that it carries several elements within each unit that can be imitated or replicated, and that it consists of groups of units with common characteristics or themes. Those factors contribute to larger dispersion rates in part, because there are more “connection points”—elements or points for people to connect with, to then imitate or replicate the original artifact.
As Shifman explains in her 2014 book, Memes in Digital Culture, the Internet meme differs, because people deliberately alter and interact with it, thereby effecting its success. Internet memes consist of the original artifact—an image, video or hashtag—and all of its reiterations, offshoots, and/or related campaigns, as well as the comments attached. They often combine two elements into a new artifact, as a way to interpret and discuss complex social issues.21 The hashtag, denoted by the # symbol, is a descriptive metadata function that provides users the means to label, organize, search and follow specific topics. Shifman closes her book with questions for further study, including whether memes affect social and political change.
An Xiao Mina expands the definition to better reflect current meme culture in her 2019 book, Memes to Movements. Like a meme itself, Mina adds a contextualized framework to Dawkins’ and Shifman’s definitions, remixing and reshaping the meaning, drawn from her personal experience with memes and social movements. She writes “Memes can take many forms and exist on many types of media, and it’s these many forms that give them their richness.”22 In addition to the meme variations mentioned above such as image, text and video memes, she includes physical (objects associated with a meme such as T-shirts or stickers), performative (when a person performs a physical act with a meme embodiment and posts that act) and selfie memes (when people post photos of themselves with the meme symbol) as well.23
Mina also answers Shifman’s question about affecting political change and details meme culture within social movements in China, The United Sates, Uganda, and Mexico. She examines case studies, compares memetic strategy and concludes that memes affect social and political change, in both positive and negative ways.