Memes: What are They and Why They Are Important

Today, we talk about memes.

“Meme” (pronounced /’miːm/, me-mm) describes a basic unit of cultural idea or symbol that can be transmitted from one mind to another and, inherently, everyone knows what memes are. In our everyday lives we live with memes; for example, catchphrases and clichés often serve the purpose translating non-literal, cultural ideas, while similes and metaphors hint at what words portray. Those are all memes.

So why devote an entirely new word, and even a study, to something that has existed for eons?

LOLCATs, a popular Internet meme, cat pictures with grammatical inconsistencies. Photo courtesy of

The reason is: we live in a different time, where culture and international exchange is pervasive, especially with technology closing that gap. And, precisely because of this, as well as the emergence of the Internet society, multifaceted, non-standardized memes emerge to take the role for cultural and sub-cultural descriptors.

What’s fascinating about the present meme culture is its dependency on virality. If it lacks the audience and their appreciation (either on the positive or negative spectrum), then it will simply fade into obscurity. Presently, although an Internet meme is often correlated with pictures with offensive or funny taglines, it has proliferated for a much longer time. The intricacies of a meme lies in what the masses find appropriate to express an idea, regardless how simple or pointless it may be.

Rick Astley, English singer-song writer, at Macy’s 2008 Thanksgiving Parade. Photo courtesy of Ben W.

But, precisely because of this Internet culture, we find a convergence in meanings and creative output, even away from the Internet. For example, in 2007 an Internet phenomenon known as Rickrolling became a meme, where users are tricked, via bait and switch, into watching the music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.”  Within a year, this practice has merged into mainstream media, and Rick Astley made an appearance at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2008, effectively pushing him back into the spotlight as a popular cultural icon since his retirement in 1993. It can be very much argued that such memes (like Rickrolling) brought together a cultural concept, across the digital and international boundaries, to further tell us the story the advent of viral ideas on social media, as well as global change and connectivity.

For more resources regarding the study of memetics and memes visit the meme tag in the library’s catalogue.

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About B.WU

Brian is a second year masters student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Currently he works as a Graduate Assistant at the International and Area Studies Library, as well as a Research Assistant at the Community Informatics Research Lab at his department. His primary research interest lies in socio-cultural aspects of copyright and digital infrastructure and how it transforms across international boundaries. On his off time he likes to watch anime, read manga, or play video and/or boardgames.

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