The first use of “meme” comes from Richard Dawkins: “1976 R. Dawkins Selfish Gene xi. 206 The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme… It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” (OED).
Today, among my friends, meme is often quickly associated with Tumblr and pictures of cats asking if they can “has cheezburger?” But for adults and the adult-world memes are more important than a silly cat because they represent malleable sound bites that can skew campaigns. They are like pull-quotes from articles that get attached to images and send a simplified and oft, not-on-target message.
Poynter discussed the risks and benefits of memes, quoting Brad Kim who says, “a meme by definition “changes in form or meaning” with each iteration, mutating further and further from the original point every time it’s shared.”
Further, memes “have evolved from crowdsourced meme to top-level campaign message, often stripping quotes of their wider context along the way. Take ‘You didn’t build that’: A selectively edited phrase from an Obama rally that portrayed the president as anti-business.”
Meme creators are not impartial spectators. Dual-viewers of debates and the Twitter-sphere often have their minds made up, and their memes, which journalists then adopt, are often biased or skewed one way. Memes aren’t going away, so the important thing in dealing with them is the journalists wary and scant use of the ones created by online bloggers and Tweeters…or if they do use them to always present a larger picture. I understand this is exactly the opposite of a sound bite, but at the very least it is informative.