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A meme's eye view

Maricelle's picture

The grumpy cats, South Park characters and Honey Boo Boos (to name only a few) of the Internet are trying to tell you something. No, don’t you dare ignore them, because they will find you. They are trying to propogate themselves and spread from brain to brain.

Sounds like a virus? That’s because it is. Welcome to the world of memes, where the aforementioned characters are not as innocent as lambs.
If you are not familiar with a meme, hang in there. If you know what a meme is, stay put. If you are “all-memes”, definitely pay attention.

If you can still remember the definition of data visualisation, you are indeed in good company as memes represent information or ideas that are (as previously stated) shared amongst Internet users. This is also the case with data visualisation.

You should know by now that data visualisation does not only entail infographics, maps and charts, but also the effective use of text and images conveying a message to the public.

The good
Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, was merely writing about a cultural idea in his book, The Selfish gene (1976), when memes decided to randomly become the talk of the town (or rather the Internet).

Memes are cultural ideas that can be transmitted through fashion, comics, music, videos, technologies etc. In the long run, they evolve into trends that people start following. These trends, however, become way too popular to my liking. After a few days, no seconds, no miliseconds, memes turn into something that everyone wishes they had never shared in the first place.

The Internet has reappropriated memes with Grumpy Cat, I can haz cheeseburger and Bad Luck Brian, to name only a few, spreading virally from one network to the next or rather from one brain to the next. Memes soon became a different ball game as these cultural forms can now be shared in different formats between different users.
This means that computers, mobile devices and tablets can now be used to connect to the Internet and other users on a 24/7 basis. So, it really makes information more accessible. Memes are no longer limited to single ideas floating around, but it has the power to reach millions of people and potentially teach the wider society about a variety of different cultures, politics and values.
The bad
Although there is no real harm in sharing something with the masses, memes can become disruptive and even lead you astray.

But, it’s not so funny anymore when memes turn something virtuous and pure into something evil and bad. Atheist users of the online platform Reddit, for example, are out to get Muslim people as they constantly comment on religious content on Facebook.
A lot of these memes are encouraging the stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists.
So, in reality, these memes will come back to haunt you if you are not careful.
The not so ugly
Whether you like it or not, memes have value and are able to sustain their popularity.
According to Dawkins, memes must have three important characteristics in order to stay popular and spread from person to person:
  • Fidelity: We know by now that memes can be transferred to people via the Internet. However, you do not know that websites, encouraging the creation of memes, exist. Websites like Memegenerator, Quickmeme and Memecentre encourage the creation of memes by using text and images in order to convey a certain cultural message. These platforms, however, store millions of memes on the Internet where users can choose to view, share or even just rate them.
  • Fecundity: Memes must have the ability to reproduce themselves. Obviously, social network platforms have made this possible as you can send memes to others by the click of a button. This, however, poses problems as content becomes overly cheap, commodified and overshared. Before long these memes are likely to die a painful death.
  • Longevity: If people come in contact with a meme, they are likely to share it if they want to send a message to others. So, it has the ability to stay alive and well on the Internet.

The image illustrates an example of a meme. Image sourced from

In the next post on data visualisation, I'll be examining why data visualisation cannot always be trusted.