Posted on

Memes: Ideas that Spread and Evolve

Memes: Ideas that Spread and Evolve

Memes: Ideas that Spread and EvolveNo. An article on memes is not an excuse to re-post a bunch of funny internet memes. We’re more grown-up boring than that, here at Management Pocketbooks.

And it’s not as if we think you don’t know what a meme is. Of course you do. So, why have we made it the subject of one of our Big Ideas articles?

Because a meme is an idea that sticks around. It is a Big Idea!

What are Memes?

The original idea of memes comes from Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. Drawing on the work of earlier thinkers, he coined the word meme as a parallel to ‘gene’. Whereas genes carry a chemical code for a biological entity, memes carry a human symbolic code for an idea or concept.

A meme is an idea that can pass around a culture. The culture can modify the meme, and in its varying form, the meme can persist and outlive the person who originated it.

So, memes are units of culture that can replicate themselves and so propagate through our society. As they evolve, memes affect the culture they sit within. What Dawkins was aiming at was an evolutionary theory for how human societies change.

Memes can be Different Things

The range of ‘cultural units’ we can describe as memes is huge – maybe endless. Some typical examples include:

  • ideas
  • models and theories
  • music and musical phrases
  • art, design, and images
  • fashions
  • philosophies
  • political doctrines and policies
  • myths and legends – archetypes
  • religions and religious beliefs practices
  • best practices

Where does the Word ‘Meme’ come from?

Dawkins came up with the word meme from the Ancient Greek word mimema (μίμημα), that means ‘imitated thing’. It comes from the same root as our words mimic and mime. He grabbed the ‘thing’ bit: meme, as a parallel to the origin of the word gene from the Ancient Greek genos meaning ‘kind’.

Okay, What about Internet Memes?

An internet meme is simply a simple idea that someone has created deliberately and which then spreads via the internet. Unlike other cultural memes, these leave a clear trail behind them. This makes it possible to track how they evolve over time.

Although they have been around since the early 1990s at least, they became ubiquitous with the ‘image macro’ format of an image with a short – often witty – text message on top. Pretty soon, familiar images – often stills from movies – would appear everywhere, with a satirical adaptation of the character’s message. Popular versions involve characters from major franchises like The Simpsons, Star Trek, and the Lord of the Rings.

The image at the top of this article uses a very common format, taken from a scene in the first Lord of the Rings movie where the character of Boromir (played by Sean Bean) says ‘One does not simply walk into Mordor’. That image and phrase style has been appropriated and lampooned hundreds – maybe thousands – of times.

Management Memes

This series of Big Ideas articles documents many of the most enduring and powerful management concepts – memes. And it will continue to do so.

I think there is a difference between these lasting ideas and ‘management fads’. I would not describe these as memes, because they tend not to last. But there is no way of knowing when an idea will spread and become a meme, and when it is destined to become, with the benefit of hindsight, a fad.

Those ideas that become memes lead to a kind of immortality for the person who originated them. Just as your genes persist for as long as you have direct descendants, your memes will last for as long as some part of society continues to share your ideas, your art, or your discoveries. And that’s why we identified and documented so many great management thinkers: to perpetuate their ideas and keep their names attached to their memes.

What is Your experience of Memes?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and questions. Please leave them in the comments below.

To learn more…

Every Management Pocketbook is full of memes worth sharing, spreading, and applying.

Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *