Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm ROBERT SIEGEL.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: That perky tune is a signal that it's time for All Tech Considered. And today, we're going to consider the meme. That's M-E-M-E. And it's a word I've been hearing more and more lately, including on this program. And Robert, I asked you recently if you knew what it meant. You said you didn't know.

SIEGEL: Me, me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: No, I thought that might be Marcel Marceau mispelled.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BBLOCK: Well, it's not - although I have to confess, I had no idea what it meant either, and I started asking around the building. It did turn out to be something that the youngest members of our staff are very familiar with - the meme. Here's the deal: It has come to mean a phenomenon of popular culture that spreads like crazy through the Internet. It could be anything from a Hitler film with wacky subtitles...

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: Or a clip from a newscast turned into an Auto-Tuned song.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ANTOINE DODSON: (Singing) ...hide your kids, hide your wife, hide you kids, hide your wife, hide your kids, hide your wife.

BLOCK: But if you're thinking that the word meme was coined by a 20-something hipster, you'd be way off.

Mr. RICHARD DAWKINS (Author, "The Selfish Gene"): I'm Richard Dawkins. I'm a retired professor at Oxford University. And I introduced the word meme in 1976 in my book, "The Selfish Gene."

BLOCK: That's right, the renowned evolutionary biologist is the man behind the meme. He defined it as a unit of cultural transmission, a new kind of replicator that follows the rules of Darwin's natural selection. As Richard Dawkins envisioned them, memes propogate themselves by leaping from brain to brain.

Mr. DAWKINS: Anything that's copied, anything that's imitated, so something like a tune that you hear whistled, clothes fashions or shoe fashions or hat fashions. These things spread through the population like a measles epidemic, and then they may jump to another population; they may decay. The whole thing looks very like the spread of a virus.

BLOCK: Well, then the task for you, I guess, back in 1976, was to come up with a word to describe this unit of cultural transmission that you're talking about. How did you come up with meme?

Mr. DAWKINS: Well, I wanted a word that was sort of a monosyllable, a bit like gene and - but which had some kind of connection with the idea of imitation. I asked a classical scholar, who produced a word mimeme as a unit of imitation, and I abbreviated it to meme.

BLOCK: At what point did it occur to you that this word was taking off, was sort of embedded in the language?

Mr. DAWKINS: Well, it became a meme in its own right, I think relatively soon. And then of course, it took off in a big way with the Internet.

BLOCK: I started Googling and stumbled upon a know-your-meme website, which has a whole series of videos. I don't know if you've seen them.

Mr. DAWKINS: No, I haven't.

BLOCK: Okay. So they take Internet phenomena that have spread through viral videos and discuss them, and there's a sort of a scientific veneer to them, humorously intended - a guy sitting in a white lab coat. And let me play you a tape of one. This is one of the examples they're talking about.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man: Good evening. Chief scientist Yada(ph) here on a breaking meme that we've been tracking over the last several days. Standing cat is the name of a viral video uploaded to YouTube in November of 2009 that - air quote - went viral in the spring of 2010.

BLOCK: Richard Dawkins, we got a breaking meme there, what do you think?

Mr. DAWKINS: Yes, well, I mean, I think anything which spreads virally through the culture, through the memesphere is legitimate use of the term.

BLOCK: You know, when I'm thinking about you coming up with this in 1976, what was your knowledge of computers then? I mean, had you thought at all about how the rise of the Internet - just the rise of computers in general might feed into what you were talking about, or was it really beyond what you were thinking about?

Mr. DAWKINS: Well, I was pretty computer-literate for the time, but neither I nor anybody else, I think, had any - very clear idea of what - this enormous flowering that would become the Internet. It's become the perfect ecology for memes. I mean, the Internet is now one, great, memetic ecosystem.

Mr. BEN HUH (CEO, Cheezburger Network): Welcome to our world.

BLOCK: Welcome to the world of memes.

Mr. HUH: Yeah.

BLOCK: Ben Huh has taken Richard Dawkins' memetic ecosystem and made it his playground. He's the founder of the Cheezburger Network, which runs a large collection of Internet humor and culture websites - 55 of them, including...

Mr. HUH: Failbook.com, which makes fun of Facebook; Very Demotivational, which is demotivational posters; There, I Fixed It!, which is homemade kluges; and we've got Engrish, E-N-G-R-I-S-H funny.com, which is horrible mistranslations from across the globe.

BLOCK: But here's the thing: Ben Huh thinks Richard Dawkins' definition of a meme, an idea replicated from person to person, is too expansive a definition in the Internet world.

Mr. HUH: Well, me saying memes on the Internet, it has a slightly narrower meaning.

BLOCK: You want a higher bar.

Mr. HUH: We want a cool, velvet-rope club.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Ben Huh says an Internet meme has to have added value - an idea has to be reinterpreted. People have to add their own signature or stamp. Or it has to be a part of a broader grouping - an added layer of cultural zeitgeist.

Mr. HUH: Somebody will look at a viral video and say, that's a meme. Well, that's actually a viral piece of content that gets spread from person to person. But that's not necessarily an idea in and of itself.

BLOCK: I want to play you a few examples here, and I want you to tell me, in listening to them, whether you would say they're meme or not meme. Okay, here's one.

(Soundbite of video)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: In it a cat identified as Rocky stands on its hind legs in order to look at something outside of a window.

BLOCK: Standing cat - meme or not meme?

Mr. HUH: Not meme. It's a viral video.

BLOCK: Not meme. Okay. Did not meet the standard.

Mr. HUH: Correct.

BLOCK: Okay. Here's another one.

(Soundbite of video)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAUL VASQUEZ: (Singing) Double rainbow, oh my God, double rainbow. It's a double rainbow.

BLOCK: Okay. This went everywhere. This is a guy - this is a song derived from video of a guy who saw a double rainbow and just went crazy.

Mr. HUH: Well, the guy who saw the double rainbow happened to be on ecstasy, and the guys who remixed that video into what they called Auto-Tuning are called the Gregory Brothers. This is actually a meme. The double rainbow meme has been mixed into many other things. So people have used double rainbow quite a bit, actually, over the last couple of months.

BLOCK: So meets the standard of a meme.

Mr. HUH: Absolutely meets the standard, yes.

BLOCK: Okay, here's one more.

(Soundbite of song, "Never Gonna Give You Up")

Mr. RICK ASTLEY (Musician): (Singing) Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down...

BLOCK: Okay, Ben Huh, what do we got there?

Mr. HUH: Well, first of all, I'm supposed to be offended because what you've just done is what's called Rickrolling. And you have Rick rolled me. And therefore, I should be insulted.

BLOCK: Sorry.

Mr. HUH: Yes. I demand an apology from ALL THINGS CONSIDERED right now.

BLOCK: And Rickrolling is?

Mr. HUH: So let's say I sent you a link. Melissa, check out this great news story that I've found. And you click on it, and you're confronted with this video of Rick Astley singing this song, and there's this moment of being baffled - I don't understand. That is Rickrolling.

BLOCK: And meme or not meme?

Mr. HUH: The music itself, and the song itself, is what it is. It's a song. It's a music video. However, what you just did, where you Rickrolled me, that is a meme.

BLOCK: So if I were to say to you that a meme really is defined as something that diverts many, many, many people from doing a good days work, what do you think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUH: Well, that's probably an overly broad definition, but it's like a huge distraction from everyday life that people can participate and remix and pass on.

BLOCK: And Ben Huh says Internet memes are pressure valves that let us blow off steam in our daily lives. At least, that's his story - and he's sticking to it.

(Soundbite of song, "Never Gonna Give You Up")

Mr. ASTLEY: (Singing) Never going to give you up, never going to let you down, never gonna run around and desert you. Never gonna make you cry, never gonna say goodbye, never gonna tell a lie and hurt you. Never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna run around and desert you.

BLOCK: Consider yourself Rickrolled. This is NPR.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.