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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Meme abuse

What’s a meme? Well, those of us who have spent too many years on the Internet (from its inception in 1969, actually, when it was called the ARPAnet) and those of us who have read The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, know what a meme is. Although the Wikipedia article on memes is far too long and leaves a lot to be desired, it definitely includes the correct definition:
A meme...comprises any idea or behavior that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, gestures, practices, fashions, habits, songs, and dances. Memes propagate themselves and can move through the cultural sociosphere in a manner similar to the contagious behavior of a virus.
That’s clear enough, so why is the word used incorrectly these days by so many people, some of whom should definitely know better but most of whom have never learned what a meme really is? Many writers seem to think that a meme is an informal quiz or questionnaire that is passed around by email or by the Web, often of the “you are a _____” variety. Now you can see both the similarities and the differences here: Do they propagate themselves, or do users intentionally transmit them? Are they cultural ideas and behaviors, or are they questionnaires? The word is definitely losing most of its import these days!

As a teacher, I suppose I’d better cite some sources for this claim. I’m sure that some of my colleagues would be aghast that I cited Wikipedia as my source for the correct use of a word, but so be it. As for the current incorrect use, I am reluctant to cite either email messages or websites of friends — for obvious reasons — but I can probably find similar use by strangers without much effort. Let’s see... most of the initial hits from a Google search actually lead to the correct usage (much to my surprise), but I’m sure I can also find the usage I object to... OK, here are a few:That’s enough. You get the idea. What’s up here?

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