A Meme is a term used to describe the spread and modification of ideas in a selection and reproduction context. Richard Dawkins coined the term and the concept of a meme, in his book, "The Selfish Gene", and expanded on his theory in "The God Delusion"  Memes are sometimes compared to viruses as an analogy, in that ideas pass to new people from those who already have that idea ("transmission"), and that they will also change over time to become more effective at catching people's attention and remaining in their mind. This is because someone who contacts the idea but doesn't like it is unlikely to spread the idea to others, so the easily transmitted ideas spread further.
That is, there are two main ways ideas can spread - by being transmitted easily, or by remaining in someone's mind for a long time (having a low transmission rate but many opportunities for that transmission to occur). The term has also been applied to the spread of viral fads on the Internet such as certain YouTube videos, because the fads spread rapidly and are only introduced to new people through those who have already contacted it. These are in the category of being transmitted easily, and since they have low staying power, they rarely remain popular for more than a few months each.
Concept of a Meme
According to Dawkins, a meme is any cultural entity that can be considered a replicator, and cites melodies, cultural similarities, and learned skills as examples. In theory, because a human does not copy memes precisely, and because humans have the ability to refine, edit, and otherwise alter memes, they can change over time, akin to the Theory of Evolution. Unlike in biological evolution, Memes do not require a physical medium to be transfered, thus theoretically, allowing for far higher rates of change.
Transmission of a meme
Some popular theories on how memes transmit include:
- Quantity of parenthood: an idea that influences the number of children one has. Children respond particularly receptively to the ideas of their parents, and thus ideas that directly or indirectly encourage a higher birthrate will replicate themselves at a higher rate than those that discourage higher birthrates.
- Efficiency of parenthood: an idea that increases the proportion of children who will adopt ideas of their parents. Cultural separatism exemplifies one practice in which one can expect a higher rate of meme-replication—because the meme for separation creates a barrier from exposure to competing ideas.
- Proselytic: ideas generally passed to others beyond one's own children. Ideas that encourage the proselytism of a meme, as seen in many religious or political movements, can replicate memes horizontally through a given generation, spreading more rapidly than parent-to-child meme-transmissions do.
- Preservational: ideas that influence those that hold them to continue to hold them for a long time. Ideas that encourage longevity in their hosts, or leave their hosts particularly resistant to abandoning or replacing these ideas, enhance the preservability of memes and afford protection from the competition or proselytism of other memes.
- Adversative: ideas that influence those that hold them to attack or sabotage competing ideas and/or those that hold them. Adversative replication can give an advantage in meme transmission when the meme itself encourages aggression against other memes.
- Cognitive: ideas perceived as cogent by most in the population who encounter them. Cognitively transmitted memes depend heavily on a cluster of other ideas and cognitive traits already widely held in the population, and thus usually spread more passively than other forms of meme transmission. Memes spread in cognitive transmission do not count as self-replicating.
- Motivational: ideas that people adopt because they perceive some self-interest in adopting them. Strictly speaking, motivationally transmitted memes do not self-propagate, but this mode of transmission often occurs in association with memes self-replicated in the efficiency parental, proselytic and preservational modes.
For a more detailed treatment, see Memetics.
The field of study of Memes is "Memetics". Memeticists have proposed that just as memes function analogously to genes, memetics functions analogously to genetics. Memetics attempts to apply conventional scientific methods (such as those used in population genetics and epidemiology) to explain existing patterns and transmission of cultural ideas. Critics, however, claim that Memetics is still at best, a protoscience, and at worst, a psuedoscience, citing difficulties in tracking changes discreetly, scientifically disproving, and evaluating factors.
A subdivision of Memes, is the internet meme, referring to the spread of ideas across the Internet-based email, blogs, forums, Imageboards, social networking sites, instant messaging and video streaming sites such as YouTube. This term is criticised by memeticists, who feel that there is no real division between a meme, and an internet meme.