The Complete Idiot's Guide to Memes

Posted Friday October 8, 2010 by John Gunders in |

File this one under “shameless self-promotion.”

While it is not necessarily anything to do with this blog, long-time readers will be aware that I’ve posted a number of times on ideas that would end up in a general book on memetics that I was writing with American journalist and writer, Damon Brown. I’m happy to say that the book was released this week in the US in the “Complete Idiot’s Guide” series from Penguin. Details here.

With permission, I’ve reproduced the opening pages below.

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes, Chapter One.

Before the new millennium, calling something “viral” usually meant Yellow Fever or perhaps a nasty cold going around the office. It was a physical thing your body could catch—and something you definitely didn’t want!

We’ve learned in the new Internet age, however, that something viral isn’t necessarily related to our body or even a bad thing. It just means a concept that catches on. As you probably know, an idea can be viral, a video can be viral, a spiritual belief can be viral, and so on.

Before the word viral became modern and hip, there was already a term for these tidbits of culture passed along to others: memes. Sounds funny, doesn’t it? But as you’ll soon discover, the word meme (which rhymes with dream) means much more than just a video of a cat playing the piano on YouTube. Indeed, some scientists believe it ties into our very evolution.

So what, exactly, is a meme? In this chapter, you’ll find out.


First defined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 best-seller The Selfish Gene, a meme is a cultural unit of measure. It can be a thought, a phrase, a style, or any other cultural expression that can be imitated by individuals.

The basic idea is that learning could be seen as a unit of cultural information being transmitted by imitation.

Richard Dawkins

Earlier scientists, such as F. T. Cloak, discussed this concept in the early ‘70s, but Dawkins was the first person to expand on the theory and to establish the term “meme” to describe it.

An assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Dawkins argued that evolution occurred not only on the physical level but also on the mental level. Families, organizations, and the culture at large survive because certain cultural ideas are passed on—and other cultural ideas are killed or blocked. These cultural ideas were called memes.

This fascinating argument was tucked into Dawkins’ book on evolution, The Selfish Gene. The 1976 hit sold more than a million copies, making Dawkins a celebrity and initially popularizing the idea of a meme.


The Greek root of the word meme, “mimema,” means something that can be imitated. Consider other words with their roots in “mimema,” such as mimic, which means to copy, or mime, which describes a person mimicking an action.

If you think about it, despite individuality being so fashionable in our time, culture often changes based on mimicry. The latest hip lingo, popular baby names, or funny haircuts are all memes. A designer in the ‘60s—probably French—decided that bell-bottomed jeans were what his or her model should wear and created a meme that would influence the following generation.

We watch each other, consume, and adapt. When we take in a cultural idea and express it in some form, we are passing on a meme.

A Life of Its Own

So a meme is a simple idea that can be passed easily from person to person. But it’s also a bit more than that. You may have heard someone describe a rumor or a story as having “a life of its own.” That’s a meme.

They might spread quickly and effortlessly, but they are not easily controlled. Someone might want to start a meme—a great new joke, say, or an advertising campaign (we talk about viral marketing in Chapter 5)—but nothing he or she can do will guarantee that the meme will survive. Of those that do, it’s impossible to tell which will prosper and which will be forgotten within days. And some of the memes that do survive are not the ones we really want to (think of racism, for instance).

Gunders, John, and Brown, Damon, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes, Alpha Books, 2010, 336pp, ISBN 978-1615640355

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