Today is Sunday, March 2, 2014.
Merriam-Webster defines a MEME as an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture. There are a lot of illustrated messages, quotes superimposed on a photo or just a quote in a fancy font on a bright background. These are known as “internet memes.” They can take the form of an image, a hyperlink, a video, a picture, a website or a hashtag.
The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in a book called The Selfish Gene, which was published back in 1976, way before the Internet got its start. Dawkins may have used as his inspiration the French word, même, which means – among other things – “same.” This makes a lot of sense, because internet memes are a form of copying.
One of the things I have noticed about internet memes is that the quotes used are often misattributed. Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa and Abraham Lincoln, in particular, would surely turn over in their graves if they knew how many things were erroneously attributed to them. Memes can be particularly dangerous when they are used on social media sites, because they are passed among friends. Many of the quotes passed along are quite profound. Some seem profound at first, until you start thinking them through, at which time you start noticing the fallacies, the inaccuracies, and the circular reasoning.
The reason they are particularly dangerous on social media is that they get passed around among friends. When our friends tell us something, we are more apt to accept it. We don’t put a warm fuzzy message from a friend in the same category as a bit of information in the newspaper, for example. We don’t give messages from friends the same sort of scrutiny as messages from someone who is a member of the “opposite” political party, or messages from someone who is a member of a religion that we don’t subscribe to. So memes have been called a virus of the mind since they bypass the normal rational defenses utilized to filter information.
Often we see a name associated with the quote, someone famous and much-admired. Here’s an example. A friend of yours shares a beautiful quote attributed to Mother Teresa. You know who Mother Theresa was, and the quote sounds very much like something she might have said. There’s no book title given, nor is there a date when she might have said this in a particular speech. Since there is no way to be sure, but it sounds about right, you assume that Mother Teresa did in fact say this, and you keep it up on your wall. One of your friends reads it and just loves the quote, so he shares it on his wall, and on and on and on.
Next time you feel like sharing a meme, at least try to check it out before posting. One good place to check quotes is Wikiquotes. If you can’t be absolutely certain who said the quote, instead of misattributing it, just list the author as “unknown” or “anonymous.”
Another thing you can do is to save memes in a folder on your computer. Let them rest for a few days and then come back and check. Chances are, if the meme hit an emotional sweet spot when you read it, the emotion has worn off a few days later. Then think about it and decide whether you really do agree with it. If it’s something you can argue for, post it on social media with or without comment, but be prepared to defend it. Otherwise, don’t post it on your wall. 🙂