Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’s Terms of Art #39: Meme & Memetics


Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Terms of Art #39:
meme & memetics


a dank doge meme [source]

meme – MEEM
memetics – meh-MEH-tiks (rhymes with “genetics”)

Definition: Well, there are internet memes and then the original memes, which are basically viral cultural ideas. Internet memes get their name from the original deal (which “memetics” is the study of), but change the concept in a couple important ways. Let’s see!

memeThe original memes and memetics
Memes are basically packets of cultural information (or behaviors, tendencies, etc.) that travel between people like viruses. You heard me: LIKE VIRUSES. LIKE COVID-19. Now that we’re all virology and epidemiology experts, we’re in good position to talk about memes!

So what’s a “packet of cultural information”? Well it might be a really catchy tune or saying WAZZZAAP. It might also be a belief in the Judeo-Christian god, or in the importance of a college education or having children. Or it might be the view that white people are smarter than non-white people, or that pink is for girls, or that the more someone weighs, the lazier they must be.

In short, it can be true or false; it can be fucked up or not.

But they spread like viruses. What does that mean? Well, people who do memetics frequently take this super literally and talk like memes are physical, locatable organisms that self-replicate so as to reproduce and preserve their own existence. Like, they get into full-on debates about Lamarckian evolution and virology and cybernetics and shit. (Full disclosure: I cannot possibly overstate how utterly ridiculous this view seems to me.) (I mean, it’s as absurd as Leibnizian monads but without the coolness of a pre-established harmony theory of everything!)


But sometimes it seems like it’s just a metaphor to help you understand how these things spread: from person to person, without the people knowing that they’re spreading the things – or knowing that they’re getting infected. (Fwiw this seems way more reasonable and even illuminating.)

Internet memes
Yay! Now the fun stuff. How are internet memes different from the memes we’ve been talking about?

Internet memes are sort of like templates that people then riff on (think any of those images with the Impact font, Pepe the Frog, etc.), or highly reproducible image/clip/text/whatever (think gifs). Look, if you’re reading this you probably already know what an internet meme is.

So these are related to OG memes, but they’re not the same. Why? Because people consciously distribute and reproduce internet memes, and they often intentionally add their own creative juices to riff on and vary them. That’s not true of OG memes, which spread across populations largely without any conscious effort on the people involved (UNLESS YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE. WEAR YOUR MASK!).


a different kind of OG meme that only we who remember the dawn of the internet will recognize

Related terms:
gene – Richard Dawkins, the table-thumping, anti-Christian evolutionary biologist coined the term “meme” on the model of the word “gene”

mimesis, imitation – etymologically related!

mneme, mnemone, mimeme – terms that roughly mean “meme” in the original sense (some predate Dawkins’ coining)

memome, and any number of other silly-sounding coinages – ways to continue to extend the analogy with genetics: it’s the human MEMOME (get it? genome?)

Not to be confused with:
gene – oh, wait, too late ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And now, please enjoy:


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