The World… So Far: What’s in a Meme?


What’s in a meme? The Urban Dictionary has a nice definition: “an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media).”  In 1976, Richard Dawkins created the concept of the meme in his book The Selfish Gene. His theory was that the more genetic similarities two individuals have between them, the more selflessly they will act toward one another.  In the book, Dawkins sets forth the concept of the meme as a unit of human cultural evolution. He wrote, “Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” Thus, the more ideas, beliefs or patterns of behavior people have in common, the more selflessly they will behave toward one another.

Let’s examines some ways these concepts translate into “real life.” Examples of a meme spreading vertically might be political ideas and beliefs. Usually one is born into a household or family with a political ideology of one kind or another, even if that ideology is not to have one! Another one is religion, covering the issues of which one to follow, how devout to be and whether to have one at all. I have found in my experiences that many times people do not choose to adhere to the political or religious beliefs of their families. So is the evolution of vertically spread memes.

The other method of spreading memes, horizontally, is what I am more concerned with.  This is the age of the Internet Meme and the one that is killing me is the deterioration of the English language! This meme evolved by the use of incorrect English captions on stupid photos, usually of animals, to be humorous. It has spread to the use of that incorrect English in various ways on the Internet. I used to think it was a generational meme, that for some reason people college aged and younger were embracing this use of incorrect English to make some kind of statement. Then as I saw it spread, I thought it was a socioeconomic meme and that those with less education were perpetuating it. Then I started to see some professors using “your” for “you’re.” So I guess this “Bad English meme” has horizontally spread to the general population.

I have no personal issue with people using incorrect, casual English for personal communications on the Internet. After all, in verbal communications, people might use different language in casual, personal conversations than they do in formal, professional interactions.  And in the world of short, concise tweets, English is forced to be truncated. What I am alarmed about is the fact that this “Bad English meme” has spread to what I consider non-personal internet use, i.e. professional email communications and the publishing of content on public social media venues. This makes me question if society is seeing the Internet as a strictly casual, personal medium… I believe that there is a difference in what should be written in a personal message versus what should be posted on a public wall.

So what? I actually got attacked on a Facebook wall when I pointed out that a “friend’s” wall post had three grammatical mistakes in its one sentence. I commented: Is this a grammar test? That “friend” attacked me on his/her wall in all caps using foul language: NOONE (F-BOMB ADVERB) CARES ABOUT (F-BOMB ADJECTIVE) CORRECT GRAMMAR ON (F-BOMB ADJECTIVE) FACEBOOK! And I replied: Then I guess I am no one. That exchange eventually killed the “friendship.” This person was a professional colleague of mine. I got attacked “in public” for calling out this “Bad English meme!”

But one incident does not a problem make! I am finding this meme being used in all walks of life, it is HIP to butcher English and it is OLD SKOOL to only use the English we learned in school. The big questions for me are: Will this meme spread completely to the business world? Will we see proposals with bad grammar, punctuation and spelling? Will it be professionally acceptable? I had another college-educated colleague who emailed me that I would get to “take a peak” at something she was working on.

I’m now noticing that the “Bad English meme” has spread from written communication to verbal communication. If you listen to the language used on TV, especially on reality shows, you will notice that these people do not speak in correct English. I’m mostly hearing people substitute adjectives for adverbs like, “She does that real expert.”

My final thoughts about this meme, it used to be that people made a huge effort to write correct English for school work and for professional writing. Now because of this human cultural imitating behavior, it seems permissible to write incorrect English. I wonder why it has caught on….maybe because using correct English is a symbol of elitism. Maybe “Bad English” is the language of the 99%?

Memes are important to be aware of and need to be watched because they develop a social power of their own! If we extend Dawkins’ theory to Internet Memes, the more memes we have in common, the better we will treat each other. On the flip side of that theory, those who do not embrace and practice these memes might not be treated well at all. If you take this to extreme conclusions, memes can be quite dangerous, depending on how widespread the meme is. Some people might feel forced to change their beliefs, values and patterns of behavior to gain acceptance in society. I guess this has always been true for all memes, but when the power of the Internet enters into it, it is all the more pronounced affecting larger numbers of people. The good news is that many memes, like genes, evolve out eventually….hopefully this “Bad English meme” too shall pass!

About Cynthia Zeiden

Cynthia Zeiden is the National Program Chair and a National Trustee on the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Trustee Board. In her work for the NATAS San Francisco/Nor Cal Chapter, she produces media seminars, webcasts them and archives them into a professional development library. Her company, Zeiden Media, develops, produces, distributes and markets video content internationally. She was the Program Manager at KCSM-TV in San Mateo, CA and Director of Broadcast Operations at WYCC-TV in Chicago, both PBS stations. Cynthia is a three-time Chicago/Midwest Emmy®-nominated producer. She has a Master’s degree in Broadcast Management from The University of Tennessee.



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