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Disciplines > Communication > Diffusion > Memes

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In his classic book 'The Selfish Gene', Richard Dawkins introduced the term 'meme' thus:

‘just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain by a process which, in the broad sense of the term, can be called imitation.'

and ‘A unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation...leaping from brain to brain.’

(Dawkins, 1976)

Memes are ideas that seem to have a life of their own as they spread far and wide, and can be seen as a form of parasite. Effective memes are infectious and people feel a need to tell others about them, whether they are funny or shocking.

A meme-complex, or memeplex, is a group of memes that work together, for example in a religion or scientific paradigm. Memeplexes can also be unique to an individual, where a person takes a set of ideas and interlocks them into a world view or understanding of something.


Memes can include individual words and whole stories. They can be TV and radio programmes, symphonies and pop songs, sports, religions and scientific theories

In 2004 a group in tried to introduce the meme ‘bright’ as a popular word for an atheist. I think they failed. (Strathern, 2007).


The idea of the meme, casually dropped as a metaphor into a book about genes, caused a storm of interest in its own right. A criticism is that a gene is the replicator, or set of instructions, not the thing that is subject to the process of selection. The phenotype is the physical manifestation of the organism, the behaviour resulting from the set of instructions, that is subject to the process of selection. Dawkins accepted this and later refined the definition as:

‘A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain. It has a definite structure realised in whatever medium the brain uses for storing information . . . This is to distinguish it from phenotypic effects which are its consequences in the outside world.' (Dawkins, 2005)

But the original idea stuck. When we say 'meme' these days we mean the product, the thing that is propagated, not the 'gene' idea of a set of instructions.

Memes arguably have several key processes, including:

  • Attracting people to the meme so they can be 'infected'.
  • The process by which the meme is received and how it attaches it self to the person.
  • The process by which sense is made of the meme and meaning attached to it.
  • The process for keeping itself 'alive' in the mind and sustaining attention.
  • The process of creating desire to replicate (be told to others).
  • The manner in which the meme is explained or transmitted.

For some the idea of the meme is delightful. For others, it is anathema, perhaps because it attacks the idea of free will and self-determination. Memes are also criticized as being scientifically untestable. The idea of the meme, encapsulated in the word 'meme', is itself a meme and this circularity just makes things worse, at least from the theoretical perspective. For those who find memes interesting, there is now the field of study known as memetics.

Memes can also be seen as metaphors, as units of communication that are packed with meaning. Without the word, perhaps there is no meaning (or at least not so precise a meaning).

The practical question for many organizations is whether memes can be managed. If you can create, shape, direct, block and otherwise manage ideas then you can control much of what people think. This is very difficult, if not impossible to do perfectly, but it may be possible to do some of it. After all, this is what marketing is arguably all about and what leaders often seek to achieve.

See also

Metaphor, Epidemiology and Diffusion


Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 192.

Dawkins, R. (2005). The extended phenotype, quoted in Alister McGrath, Dawkins’ God: genes, memes and the meaning of life. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 123.

Oona Strathern, O. (2007). A brief history of the future. London: Robinson, p. 301


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