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Memes: Survival of the Wittiest

Ochre Jelly on Flickr

Memes (rhymes with teams)—those funny or thoughtful images that pop up on our social media—are so much fun to share, alter, or remix, and see how long you can keep them going.

But why do we call them ‘memes’ and where did the word come from? It may surprise you to learn that the word originates from before home-based internet was a thing. In fact, the very idea of a ‘meme’ spans even further back than digital media.

In 1970, the British scientist, Richard Dawkins, coined the term to describe what he saw as the cultural version of the human gene. If you think about it, things in our general culture work in similar ways to genes. Culture and media can replicate themselves, carry information, and even mutate into different forms. And most importantly, they can be passed along from person to person.

Internet memes even experience their own version of “survival of the fittest,” with good media flourishing and bad media eventually ‘dying off,’ just like gene pools. So really, any kind of cultural thing can become a ‘meme’ with these conditions.

However, none have exceeded the internet meme in popularity.

Although you can see the similarity between Internet memes and Dawkins’s criteria (contains cultural information, gets passed along between people, and can adapt through mutation), they differ in that Dawkins’ says that “real” memes should mutate naturally, without intervention. Try telling that to all the internet users, websites, and social media platforms where the word ‘meme’ relates to funny images or videos.

In a way, the word ‘meme’ has had its own memetic transformation into the meaning it has today. So, the next time you see a funny video or picture, do your part and, just like genes, keep passing it along.

Learn More

Definition of a meme


What is a meme?


Internet Meme


Ten meme examples


How to Pronounce Meme


History Behind the First Internet Meme


Funny memes for kids


Family friendly memes


Laugh-out-loud memes for Parents