First off, if you've been pronouncing this word as "maim" because of the way it looks, don't worry - I did for a while when I first started seeing the word, too. I had to correct myself to pronounce it properly as, "Meem."
Basically, a meme is an idea or symbol that circulates through culture(s) in a similar manner as a virus. Memes are viral. (I mentioned in a previous post that memes are often inside urban legends... some urban legends are viral, spreading like a virus). So if you imagine how a flu spreads, you'll understand how quickly concepts/ideas and symbols spread, only with a meme, an abstract thing spreads. With a flu virus, an actual living organism spreads - a physical entity. With memes, the symbols, ideas and concepts - the abstract details are infectious.
Where a physical (flu, for example) virus is limited to physical contact in order to spread, replicate, extend outward and infect multiple times, a meme can probably spread even faster than a flu virus because it can be spread faster than we can walk, touch each other, physically infect each other. Sure, memes contained inside urban legends and urban legends themselves will spread in a similar way as a flu virus if we gather people together for story-telling sessions; each group who hears the meme/legend can walk away from one session and begin another elsewhere with different people and thus spread the meme/legend. This, however, is a rather slow way to physically pass memes, urban legends, a flu virus.
Internet memes spread much more rapidly because they aren't confined to a fully physical environment. One meme can spread to thousands, even millions of internet users from a single source and be delivered electronically in a split second.
Powerful stuff, eh?
Richard Dawkins is credited with coining the word and definition of "meme," and has explained that we need to think of memes in the way we think about genes in order to properly talk about, understand and mentally process the "behaviours" of memes. Discussion about memes is relatively new in society and the study of this information is called memetics. Basically, in 1976, in the book, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, memes are introduced as units of cultural transmission analogous to the gene.
Features/possibilities of a meme:
- it can replicate
- it can spread quickly
- it is not limited to most physical barriers for transmission
- it is a pattern
- it has causal agency (produces an effect/responsible for events or results)
- it can propagate
Memes are pretty powerful units!
Pro/Con about meme units:
- pro - entertainment value can reach a large audience (ie: Chuck Norris Facts)
- pro - can be used to send positive concepts out into society on a mass scale
- con - can be used to send negative concepts out on a mass scale
- pro and con - media can spread negative or positive concepts on a mass scale
- pro and con - memes can 'cycle' ie: have a birth, active time and death
- con - these can be misused, misinterpreted, some memes can be invented, controlled to a large extent (in beginning stages)
- debatable tidbit: many researchers are still discussing the where and whyfor aspects of memes. It is possible that memes continue to circulate while they are "needed" in society and then "die off" when society doesn't need them anymore.
I personally agree with the last tidbit above because I am familiar with urban legends, how they spread, why some of them (not all but some) exist and often - why they exist in one place but not another.
With urban legends, they seem to "stay alive" and circulate in a society that needs the urban legend(s), needs to perpetuate a story, needs to vent out fears and anxieties, etc. Urban legends have a purpose in society - even if many people think most urban legends are just junk, made up stories, fiction, etc (I will always argue that urban legends are NEVER entirely fictitious - in the least, there is something symbolic about an important truth/fear inside each urban legend). In the same way, I do believe that every meme in circulation is active because it is needed and is serving some purpose (not always a good/positive purpose, but a purpose nonetheless).
Check out Dr. Ray Scott Percival's lecture on memes (according to Richard Dawkins' theories):
Part 1 of 3
Part 2 of 3
Part 3 of 3
Each vid is of reasonable length, just under ten minutes long per video.