Are We Containers for Content? The Origin of Memes

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on March 20
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"When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”--Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene 


  1. A cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biologocal transmission of genes. 
  2. A cultural item in the form of an image, video, phrase, etc., that is spread vie the internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way.

The word “meme” was invented about 40 years ago by evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins.  Dawkins coined the term in his controversial 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.  The book is famous.  The word “meme” is even more famous.

Heavy Stuff

Memes began as more than funny images on the internet.  Dawkins first coined the term in his discussion of evolutionary change.  For Dawkins, evolution proceeds in accordance with the survival of “selfish genes.” According to this theory, neither species nor individual beings play center-stage in the ongoing evolutionary struggle for survival.  Rather genes, determine the ongoing emergence of life forms. Because genes act as the primary agents of evolutionary change, the survival of living entities loses priority, save for their functional value as protective hosts for the passage of genetic information.  Living things serve as nothing more than useful “packages,” necessary only because they enable their genes to survive amidst often violently harsh environmental conditions.


Moreover, for Dawkins, the vital components of evolution go beyond the genetic level, extending to yet more fundamental elements he calls “replicators.” According to Dawkins, replicators are the building blocks of everything, and they seek only to spread and survive through replication. And Dawkins named these replicator elements “memes.”  Eventually, the term came into popular usage to designate information that spreads and reproduces through cultures with a robust, “viral” efficiency:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

The rise of internet memes seems ironically apt.  As originally conceived by Dawkins (decades before the internet became an essential part of everyday life), the concept of a “meme” suggests that our understanding of the human species must now be extended to technology.

For Dawkins, life on this planet emerges as the byproduct of constantly multiplying replicators, mechanisms in constant pursuit of the most efficient way to spread and survive. A popular blog post thus expresses a process of evolutionary change.  Even this essay, transferred to the brain of the reader, reduces both text and reader to transmission media. Fundamentally, then, our entire environment—with its interdependent ecosystems of living entities, technologies, and cultures—exists as nothing more than a dynamic network of host media for the survival of replicator-memes.Memes-are-everywhere-marketscale-b2b-marketing.jpeg

The critical issue here, however, involves the more radical fundamental shift at work in the implications of Dawkins’ theory: By presenting replicators as the fundamental drivers of evolutionary change, Dawkins’s theory reduces all things to the level of media: Very little difference exists between humans and machines, animals and ideologies, insects and internet memes—since these all function as nothing more than vessels to facilitate the replication and passage of information. Reduced to the survival of replicator-information, evolution turns humans into nothing more than one of many potential media for transmission and reproduction of “content”:

"When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.” 

Replicators cannot survive without a host, and they will use any medium that can extend their circulation and reproduction. The criteria for a chosen “container” comes down to availability and effectiveness.

Sharing posts on social media, humans thus serve as mere links in a chain of host media for the passage of information.  Automate the process, and humans no longer play a necessary role in transmission. In fact, following Dawkins, media environments—everything from the internet and telecommunication networks, to publishing, music, and even the film industry—would enable replicators to free themselves from dependence on organic beings. Profound changes in our way of life could follow. 

Any medium, whether human, technology or otherwise—everything becomes hardware for the survival of replicator-software.  And only the best hardware gets to play host.  As media environments attain greater autonomy and sophistication, the more biological hosts slip into decline. Faced with the reproductive efficiency of media environments, our survival may soon involve competition with digital technologies, photographs, websites, written texts, radios, and a broad, ever-extending proliferation of other, more efficient transmission media. 

Of course, this all just Dawkins’ theory.  But his ideas are spreading.

Or not…

You need not buy into Dawkins’ ideas to understand the popularity of memes.  Memes are:

  1. Easy to consume. The most popular ones are a simple image with a few words of text printed on them.
  1. Shareable. Just make sure you’ve got social media buttons.
  1. Familiar. Whether or not the reader is familiar with the specific context or reference, the best memes are easy to understand and identify with.
  1. Funny. Nearly all successful memes have an element of humor, which people are eager to share with their connections online.MarketScale-Marketing-B2B-Meme-inhouse.jpg
  2. Include people. Make people feel “in” on something. Create a community where people understand a particular reference or identify with a message and can share it with the like-minded.


Easy Creation of Value-Added Content

Sharing funny or thought-provoking memes (not self-promos), you are following the number one rule of content marketing, which is providing value-added content to your past and potential clients. It’s a lot faster than writing a blog post (or even a Tweet!), and it’s quicker for your online followers to consume.


Stay Relevant on Social Networks

With Facebook’s  newsfeed algorithm, most of your posts aren’t showing up in your fans’ newsfeeds, especially if they’re not somehow interacting with your brand. An image or photo meme can give your company an edge by getting quick likes and shares that keep your company’s posts scrolling through your fans’ homepages. 

Driver Content: At MarketScale, we call these kinds of short-form posts Driver Content

Driver content has been powering the proliferation of social media platforms such as Instagram for years. In fact, only within the last year did Instagram increase their maximum video length from 15 seconds to 60 seconds. Short videos and compelling visuals were enough for them to garner 500 million+ users. And Driver content will work for your business as well.

The business case for Driver content is overwhelming

Infographics are 300% more likely to be shared than any other type of content. Visuals increase a buyer’s willingness to consume content by 80% and are a whopping 4000% more likely to be shared on social media.

A single day of video production can often yield over six Driver video clips.

For audience engagement—especially via social media—and high-frequency, nothing beats driver content.

To learn more about the benefits of short-form, driver content, visit our website


Topics: Creative, Content, inbound, B2B Content, Content Strategy, Social Media Marketing, B2B Social Selling

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