It’s All in the Memes

Sep 29 2017

Memes in Digital Culture is a short and well-written guide to the use of memes in digital culture which I read on a flight back to Asia from the UK. Limor Shifman really gets to the heart of what memes are, how they work and what makes some more successful than others.

The word meme was coined long before the internet became an integral part of our lives, most famously by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Limor Shifman points out that Dawkins successful memes incorporate three key traits, longevity, fecundity and copy fidelity, and that all three are enhanced by the internet. Memes transmitted online have high fidelity (accuracy) when digitalised, they can be diffused to multiple places immediately and arguably have longer life when information is stored indefinitely.

However, she goes one step further to state that in many ways memes are the best concept to encapsulate some of the fundamental ways in which digital culture works. Digital culture propagates ideas from individuals to society, while also reproducing and imitating those ideas and sharing them through selection and competition. Memes are the ultimate form of propagation as “pieces of c cultural information that pass along from person to person, but gradually scale into a shared social phenomenon”. They spread on a micro basis but with macro level effects.

She also discusses the difference between memes and virality and how memes work in a general cultural context as well as more specific situations such as political movement. Virality is generally used to describe person-to-person transmission which is quick and has a broad reach. Social networks are an ideal platform for such transmission.

Viral success is discussed in terms of six Ps (based on the work of Jonah Berger and others after him. These are positivity (and humour), provoking high-arousal emotions, packaging (e.g., clear and simple messages work better), prestige (it helps if the author is well known to you), positioning (it’s location in the network) and participation (not just encouraging people to read something, but also to do something).

The author parses the factors driving memetic success versus virality and concludes that prestige, positioning and strong emotions are most important for vitality, whereas the success of memes is driven by a number of diverse factors that create interest and curiosity, including things that create problems or puzzles to solve. Some factors are common to both memes and virality such as simplicity, humour and the ability to participate.

This is a great read for anyone interested in cultural trends, semiotics or digital marketing giving plenty of insights into how modern culture can be shaped and moulded by anyone with a great idea.


Memes in Digital Culture by Limor Shifman

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

“What makes online content viral?” by Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, Journal of Marketing Research, 49 no. 2 (2012): 192-205

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