“A brilliant spark that will fly through the air and set the vapors of our insurrectionary imaginations alight.”John Jordan, founder of Reclaim the Streets
Memes (rhymes with “dreams”) are self-replicating units of cultural information that spread virally from mind to mind, network to network, generation to generation.
Term coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. First connected to social change strategies by Kalle Lasn of Adbusters magazine.
How do ideas spread? How does cultural change happen? How does a symbol become a shared point of connection for a movement? Through memes! Understanding how to introduce and spread memes is a crucial skill for anyone who seeks to shift public opinion or cultural practices.
A meme is like a piece of cultural DNA that evolves as it passes from person to person. The term is derived from the ancient Greek word mimema, meaning, “something imitated.” Playing on the word “gene,” Richard Dawkins coined the term as a way of understanding how cultural practices spread. A meme is any unit of culture that has spread beyond its creator — buzz words, catchy melodies, fashion trends, ideas, rituals, iconic images, and so on.
Unscrupulous power-holders have shown considerable skill at designing memes that spread their stories through the culture: death panels, weapons of mass destruction, the war on terror, union bosses and tax relief are all memes that have become part of the public discourse. A meme is like a viral frame that allows a story to spread, carrying a certain worldview with it.
Although the term may be relatively new, memes have always been used by social movements to spread stories of liberation and change, from No taxation without representation to Black is beautiful to living wage. The incredible spread of Occupy Wall Street’s meme we are the 99% has shown not only how a good meme can spread a powerful social change message but also how a shared meme can serve as an organizing tool.
Effective memes are memorable, easy to spread and “sticky.” In other words they linger in our consciousness, connect with our existing thinking and are easily passed on through our communications and actions. A meme that embodies a message and spreads rapidly can dramatically increase the impact of an action or campaign.
IMPORTANT CAVEAT: A potent meme alone will not win a campaign or trigger systemic change. The right meme can, however, help people-powered organizing be exponentially more effective and influential by helping a message, an idea, or a rallying cry go viral.