Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 11, 2003
By: Kevin Drum

MEME....In comments to this post, we get the following heartfelt plea from Chun the Unavoidable:

Before using the word "meme," ask yourself if the sense you intend differs in any way from that conveyed by "idea." If it doesn't, as I strongly suspect it will not, then use the perfectly good word "idea."

There's nothing cool about using "meme." It doesn't make you sound smart or hip or even tech-savvy. Please.

Since the question of whether Howard Dean is electable is a speculative one that's based almost entirely on personal interpretation, I was happy to see a comment in that thread that was (a) completely off topic, and (b) about one of the great questions of our age.

So: is the word "meme" useful? I happen to have a general tolerance even fondness for new words, which enter the English language constantly and expose themselves willingly to a ruthless Darwinian selection that kills off all but the hardiest within only a few years. "Meme" has now been around for over a decade, and although it's not in widespread use in the general population I think it's survived as well as it has because it has genuine usefulness.

Here's my take: "meme" applies primarily to ideas that filter into a community rapidly, spread like a virus, and then just as rapidly die away. A meme that survives becomes something else: a concept, or an idea, or a principle.

And this is why the word shows up so often in blogs. Not just because bloggers tend to be geeks although that's surely part of it but because blogging by its nature tends to focus on minutiae that pop into the collective consciousness, rattle around for a while, and then go away. (During the middle state, memes often become "conventional wisdom," a phrase that probably deserves its own word too.)

So I use the word "meme" when the connotations I'm looking for include (a) a fairly trivial but specific idea, (b) one that's confined to a specific community, and (c) one that has spread rapidly. I don't know of any other word that gets all this across so succinctly, and the concept seems like a pretty useful one in an era of widespread instantaneous communication and short attention spans.

And that's why I like the word "meme."

UPDATE: There's also something about its specific syntactical usage that makes "meme" different from "idea," but I can't quite put my finger on what it is. For example, you might say "the 'Dean is unelectable' meme is hogwash...." but you wouldn't say "the 'Dean is unelectable' idea is hogwash...." Instead, you'd say "the idea that Dean is unelectable is hogwash...."

There's something concrete about the word "meme" that affects the way it's used in a phrase. Are there any serious grammarians out there who can tell me what I'm talking about here?

Kevin Drum 4:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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