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[TrendTalk] The Pope, The Donald and memes

In societal terms, memes are a cultural construct for the transmission of ideas. Social media has distilled memes down to a way of slaughtering holy cows and popularising a central theme or ideas.
The evolutionary psychologists are using "memes" to describe how culture works and an in-depth paper on memes from The London School of Economics and Political Science, looks at 'What memes are supposed to be'; whether we are using them in the right context of idea generation; and how seriously we should take them: "Memes are the units of selection in culture, as genes are the units of selection in evolution... when we talk of ideas being passed from person to person, we are also taking about memes."

Richard Dawkins is credited with coming up with the word "meme" from the Greek word mimeme (to imitate); but other literature also references German biologist, Richard Wolfgang Semon, who 100 years ago, coined the word "mneme", from the Greek muse of memory.

The concept of memes is older than the internet and was conceived to denote units of ideas spread culturally, says Jen Barnett, CEO of Freshfully, in a presentation on Ignite, "but like most intelligent concepts, the internet made it way better".

Some memes happen organically and are often funny, some are commercial (viral marketing), and it all basically started with geeks sharing pix of their cats, she explains.

Memes succeed because they are funny, ironic, offensive, or all three, says Barnett. And once "released into the wild", there is no telling what a meme will do, according to the 'The Complete Idiot's Guide to Memes', written by Damon Brown and John Gunders, Ph.D.

Context and influence are equally important for a meme to go viral and surface its true meaning, but equally, memes can get subverted and turn into something you would prefer to keep hidden, should the context be misunderstood, warn Brown and Gunders.

Memes on social media often poke fun at the awkwardness of being human, particularly for those who are public figures or celebrities. For many, the object is humour, but they can be cruel. Not even the Pope is sacred.

An ill-timed gust of wind lifted the Pope's cape during a speech in Philadelphia this week on his US visit. Cue the internet and everyone with too much time on their hands... and Dilophosaurus Pope was created. And Lily Pope, Marilyn Monroe Pope, Spaceship Pope... it was all a bit cheesy.

You get the picture. And here's some more pictures, courtesy of Viralthread.com and m.9gag.com.

Going viral

There are a myriad of sites that track memes and where you can even confirm memes. Cheezburger is one of the most famous, but all the tech sites track memes and many mainstream media, particularly when they slide over into commentary on news headlines, like the Homo Naledi discovery which gave Twitter as much fodder for commentary as the bones did for the scientists who made the actual find. Mashable.com, TechCrunch.com and locally, TechCentral.co.za and Memeburn.co.za are good sites to follow on tech news.

Writing in their book, Brown and Gunders say memes go viral and replicate "because that is how they exist in the world". Our reactions and our actions in sharing memes, are what craft memes - like a "chemical reaction".

It is important to note that memes existed before the internet and it is not our tabloid, irreverent, 'naming, shaming, blaming' culture that has created this phenomenon. Memes have been part of culture for eons and how ideas are shared.

But as Brown and Gunders point out: "The internet certainly changed not only the speed with which memes spread, but also the types of memes capable of being created easily. The early internet (and later, video upload websites such as YouTube) democratised the process and made it easier for more memes to find other parties.

"When it comes to the internet, it is important to remember the wide audience. A complicated thought may require knowing another language, a deep understanding of a foreign culture, and other skills to create the right context. For every major international meme, there are countless memes that remain confined within a country, a city, or even a family."

LOLcats was one of the first and transcends culture and language. Memes aren't always funny, because as a unit of our culture, they can also have moral value and highlight issues that concern us, such as poverty or racism.

Of course there are those people we love to hate and the collective joy when they present memes to amplify the scorn with which we view them, is a thing of beauty. Right-wing politician and business braggart, Donald Trump, is one. His hair is another.

That hair. The internet is full of glorious, hair raising memes dedicated to Donald Trump's questionable quiff.

The Donald's messy mop has been parodied a long time, but never more so than when he entered the US Presidential race by announcing his candidacy for the Republican Party this year. The question has actually been asked if Americans could ever elect a man with such terrible tresses: as Bustle.com reports in this piece on the catastrophic comb over - with pictures. Time magazine even published a handy guide to getting the same 'hairstyle'.

The internet wins this round.
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TRENDAFRiCA is a trend watching portal on consumer insight, research and trends from South Africa and further afield on the continent of Africa. It includes DAiLY trends headlines from around the world, influential Trendspotter columnists and in-depth reports on industry segments. Louise Marsland is the founder and editor.
Go to: www.trendafrica.co.za

About Louise Marsland

Louise Marsland is currently Africa Editor: Bizcommunity.com; a Content Strategist and Trainer; and Trend Curator for Bizcommunity.com and her own TRENDAFRiCA.co.za. She has been writing about the media, marketing and advertising communications industry in South Africa for over 20 years, notably, as the previous Editor of Bizcommunity.com Media & Marketing; Editor-in-Chief AdVantage magazine; Editor Marketing Mix magazine; Editor Progressive Retailing magazine; Editor Business Brief magazine and Editor FMCG Files ezine.

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