Though history will probably remember Richard Dawkins as the activist who spearheaded a new atheist movement, there is something far more famous and important that he invented — and few people know it. He is the guy who first popularized the idea of the meme, way back in the 1970s. That's right. Dawkins is indirectly responsible for every fruit-adorned cat, weird Japanese mashup video, and animated gif from Harry Potter fandom that has spurted out of the internet and into your face.
But of course, Dawkins's idea of memes wasn't quite the same thing as lolcats or ROFLCon. Here's how the idea of the meme evolved, and where it came from.
The Selfish Meme
Dawkins published The Selfish Gene in 1976. It popularized a new understanding of evolution, looked at from the perspective of the tiniest units of reproduction: genes. In a sense, it was his effort to update Darwinism for the genetic age, but it was also a polemic. He argued that individuals are driven by their "selfish" genes, which are programmed to survive at all costs. In this way, Dawkins shrank the Darwinian argument down to its constituent parts. Instead of focusing on survival of the species, he focused on the self-preserving individual. And the most basic unit of the individual was what Dawkins called "the fundamental unit of heredity," or the gene.
Still, Dawkins wasn't discounting the influence of culture on this genetic affair. Even if we are ruled by genes, we are also guided by culture. And so, toward the end of his book, he takes a go at analyzing culture the way he analyzed individual selection. The most fundamental unit of cultural meaning, he called a "meme." Like a gene, a meme wants to spread and evolve, but it does so at a much faster rate than genes. An idea can mutate an entire culture in less than a generation — and indeed, as if to prove Dawkins's point, the idea of the meme has already done this in our lifetimes.
There are two interesting points that Dawkins makes about memes that are worth considering in light of how "meme" evolved into lolcats. First, he emphasizes very strongly that memes are not subject to the same rules of selection that genes are. A meme does not have to aid in human survival in order for it to replicate. A successful meme is copied from one brain to another, perhaps billions of times over thousands of years, for what Dawkins calls "psychological" reasons. Second, he describes the competition between memes by talking about computers — a pretty prescient move in the mid-1970s when he was writing The Selfish Gene. Memes compete for our attention and memory the way programs compete for valuable time on computers (he was probably thinking of a mainframe, where users would queue up programs to run sequentially, due to the machine's limited processor power).
Can a meme be selfish? Of course. Just look at the "god meme," opines Dawkins, which exists only to perpetuate itself — often by associating with complexes of other successful memes, like popular pieces of art, music, and architecture.
So the meme is unlike genes in many ways, but it shares with them the basic "urge" to be copied, to compete for survival, and to preserve itself by joining up with complexes of other memes.
The Seme Before the Meme
Dawkins was in no way the first person to think about culture in the context of tiny units of meaning that replicate themselves. Linguists had pondered this idea for over a century before Dawkins copied their memes. And in 1970, a few years before The Selfish Gene came out, a philosopher named Roland Barthes published a book called S/Z where he explored the idea of the "seme," or a single unit of semantic meaning. Like Dawkins's meme, Barthes's seme could be a word, a song, or an image. A seme means many things at once; it is inherently unstable, what Barthes calls "a flicker of meaning." For example, a description of a large house (the seme) can mean "wealth" or "loneliness" or "family."
If you analyzed Limecat as a seme, you could say that it means "I am humiliated," "You suck," "This is awkward," "I am all-powerful and regard you as ridiculous," and any number of other possible things. Today's lolcats and animated gifs fit the definition of Barthes's seme as much as Dawkins's meme because they are used in so many situations to mean so many different things. They become a flicker of meaning in our internet conversations, an ambiguous rejoinder to a comment or a vague representation of a feeling.
Barthes's book S/Z offers, in part, a seme-by-seme analysis of a short story by Honoré de Balzac called "Sarassine." He uses the story to demonstrate how semes are inherently unstable, taking on meanings and discarding them. This is crucial to Barthes's whole view of how narrative works. Like many philosophers of his time, Barthes insisted that cultural texts — whether books or sporting events — always have many meanings. This is partly because textual meaning is in the mind of the reader, and it's partly because language itself works by implication and suggestion. There is, in other words, no way to test a book in the lab and find out what its absolute meaning is.
If the meme is the basic unit of culture, I suppose you could say the seme is the basic unit of cultural ambiguity. The seme explains why memes never survive intact. They mean many things at once, or their meanings change over time. The same image is used with a zillion different captions. A pop song becomes a "rickroll." A cat falling off a balcony is something silly, something courageous, something to distract you from boredom. It's all those things.
So the seme never became a popular meme (except among post-structuralists), but the meme finally took off as a meme once the internet was so ubiquitous that these selfish little units of meaning could replicate and compete for our attention at a rapid clip. In the 1990s, Douglas Rushkoff popularized the idea of a "media virus," which was basically a way of applying memes specifically to internet culture. Shortly after his book Media Virus went viral in 1996, the phrase "going viral" became synonymous with internet memes and how they behave.
But it wasn't really until the 2000s that the internet meme as we know it went mainstream. There were 1990s internet memes, like Goatse and various things on rec.arts.funny, but there was nothing like the organized meme-machine of I Can Haz Cheezburger and the empire that site created. Still, many memes pay homage to their 1990s origins by transmitting themselves through animated gifs, which were a staple of the late-90s "homepage" days on the "World Wide Web."