I asked my 10-year-old son what a meme was; he answered, "a funny picture". A meme is defined as an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. It often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme.
Beyond "funny pictures", memes are abstractions. They capture the essence of an idea in a compact and efficient way. Further, they're memorable, relatable, usually comical, and are often related to cultural or current events. Memes work because they share information efficiently across a wide audience. [Ed. note: isn't that the goal of teaching?]
Richard Dawkins, British evolutionary biologist and best-selling author, described how "memes (discrete units of knowledge, gossip, jokes and so on) are to culture what genes are to life." He saw that
"just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes."
Like memes, genes are discrete units of information that are transferred from one person to the next in a population and are under intense selective pressure. Genes also represent an idea — an address on a chromosome with heuristically defined boundaries — rather than being a tangible 'thing'. Perhaps, genes are the OG memes? Regardless, efficient information transfer is key for survival whether you're a gene, a packet traveling across a network, or just a funny picture.
Footnote: if memes are clever, efficient, and relatable abstractions of an idea, then the viral distracted boyfriend meme might best be described as the cultural phenomenon of always wanting more and never being happy with what you have. The image represents an absurd example of this relatable idea where we empathize with girl #2.
*Footnote 2: analyzing a meme to try to understand what it really means can ruin the meme.