In 1976, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins proposed a new word — “meme”:
“I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream.’”
For thirty years, Dawkins’ word “meme” was used in academic debate, where it inspired a field of cultural study called “memetics.” Then around 2009, it passed into common usage: a term for nuggets of entertainment, from jokes to funny pictures to short movies, that proliferate rapidly through the social communities of the Internet. In a moment of beautiful recursion, the word “meme” proved its truth by mutating and replicating.
Memes shape us just like genes, and, just like genes, they also shape the world. “Shape” is not a metaphor and neither is “memes”. Dawkins made it clear that memes, which propagate from brain to brain through imitation, are subject to natural selection and can be regarded as living structures, “not just metaphorically but technically,” not least because new information changes our brains. And even this statement only scratches the surface. On an evolutionary time scale, in every tool-using organism, tools change genes and genes change tools.
Dawkins made it clear that memes, which propagate from brain to brain through imitation, are subject to natural selection and can be regarded as living structures, “not just metaphorically but technically,”
But in humans, this process is uniquely accelerated. Asking “how can I make this better?” is fundamentally different to making something because your instincts — the behaviors determined by your genes — tell you to. “How can I make this better?” is a recursive question — it creates the infinite loop of problem-solution thinking. We improve something, we improve it again, we die. But the thing and the thinking persists. Somebody else improves it and dies. The improved thing and the improved thinking persists. And so on. Most attempted improvements fail. Only the ones that seem to work — that appear to enhance the solution and diminish the problem — survive. Creation is mutation. Creative success is natural selection.
An example of how “meme” is popularly understood is a dance craze called the “Harlem Shake” that spread around the world rapidly at the start of 2012. Google’s trend charts of the phrase “Harlem Shake” are seismic. Almost no one looked for the words until February 7, and then there was one of the fastest search surges Google had ever recorded. A few weeks later, the searches fell back to almost zero.
The surge began on January 30 when a Japanese-American college student named George Miller, who posted a three-and-a-half minute compilation of homemade comedy on the video-sharing web site “YouTube.” Miller had been posting videos since 2008 and had developed an absurd comic style and an audience of tens of thousands. Miller’s movie began with 19 seconds of Miller and three friends dancing in Miller’s bedroom to an obscure piece of electronic dance music: “Harlem Shake” by a little-known DJ called Harry Rodrigues, or “Baauer.” Miller’s audience loved the dance. Within hours, one fan had posted a video that looped the 19-second sequence for three and a half minutes.
On Saturday, February 2, five teenage skateboarders from Caloundra, Australia, were stuck home because of rain, so they imitated Miller’s dance to “Harlem Shake” and uploaded it to YouTube. In Orlando, Florida, skateboarders Anan Lagana and Jackson Foltz saw the Australian video and, with the help of three friends, imitated it with no knowledge of Miller’s original. Miller’s meme had started replicating and mutating. The next day, Sunday, February 3, America came to its annual standstill for the Super Bowl. Just after half-time, there was a 22-minute power outage in the Mercedes Benz Superdome in Louisiana. A few advertising agencies reacted quickly via the Internet’s most popular information sharing services, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Drugstore Walgreens pointed out it sells candles; cookie-maker Oreos reminded people they could still dunk their cookies in the dark; and laundry detergent Tide said it could not get your blackout but it could get your stains out. The next day, the talk of the nation was not expensive Super Bowl ads but the brands that took free advantage of the power outage. Advertisers and their agencies started the week determined not to miss the next big social media opportunity.
A new imitation of “Harlem Shake” appeared. It came not from YouTube users, but from Maker Studios, a Los Angeles company that specializes in making money from YouTube and is partly owned by media company Time Warner. Maker Studios employee Vernon Shaw noticed the skateboarders’ “Harlem Shake” videos on Reddit, a major tributary of information on the internet. Shaw saw an opportunity to exploit them to promote Maker. On Thursday, February 7, Maker Studios uploaded an imitation of the Florida video showing its staff dancing in its office. The advertisers and agencies who spent the week after the Super Bowl looking for the next big thing in social media spent the weekend after the Super Bowl believing they had found it: they noticed the self-promotion by Maker Studios and started copying the Florida skateboarders, doing a two steps removed imitation of George Miller dancing to “Harlem Shake.” On Sunday, February 10, these companies started posting and promoting their own “Harlem Shake” videos. Thousands of “Harlem Shake” videos were uploaded during the week of February 11, many of them from businesses seeking attention.
On February 13 — after a breakfast television star called Al Roker danced to “Harlem Shake” in a cupid costume and an 82-year old economist called Alice Rivlin, former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, danced to “Harlem Shake” in a stars and stripes top hat — many observers declared the “Harlem Shake” dead.
They were right: on March 19, a new video was posted. A bespectacled boy danced alone in a crowded high-school cafeteria for 15 seconds, then yelled “Everyone! Do the Harlem Shake!” The cafeteria fell silent. A few people cursed. The boy crept away.
The meme had propagated globally within days and become almost extinct almost as quickly.
Like Dawkins’ idea of “memes” itself, it had taken some time. The “Harlem Shake” originated with a drunken man named Albert Boyce dancing at Harlem’s Rucker Park basketball court in 1981. It was sobered up by children in the bleachers and became a popular dance in the hip-hop music community. When Boyce died in 2006, the dance had found its way into some rap songs and videos. In 2012, Harry “Baauer” Rodrigues sampled one of these songs and used it as an element in — and the title of — a piece of electronic dance music. The song was a commercial failure until George Miller included it in his YouTube video. Then, suddenly, the “Harlem Shake” moved from the Rucker to Al Roker, Alice Rivlin and beyond.
Like ”memes,” this rapid spread of ideas has a popular name borrowed from biology and popularized by Richard Dawkins. It is also a word that was very familiar to Rosalind Franklin: “viral.”
The “Harlem Shake” both exemplifies and trivializes the idea of memes and what Dawkins calls “viruses of the mind.”
As an example, it shows how an idea can develop in a small sub-culture (in this case Harlem street ball followed by the broader context of hip-hop) until it has enough appeal be heard around the world, where it arrives through a combination of circumstance and salience, apparently instantly and arbitrarily, mutating all the while, it roots and originators unknown, uncredited or forgotten. At the end of 2012, Harry Rodrigues, the man who made the song the “Harlem Shake,” still either did not know or would not acknowledge that George Miller was responsible for its success. In all these respects, the “Harlem Shake” is a typical meme, exceptional only for its speed — another hula-hoop, miniskirt, jive or Charleston. Fads, gags, and pictures of cats are the least important, least interesting and least powerful memes. The most important, most interesting, and most powerful are tools — not just things for making but also ways of thinking. Tools are the memes that shape our species.
An earlier version of this article, focusing on the Harlem Shake, was published in Quartz.