No. 3245: MEMES

by Karen Fang

Click here for audio of Episode 3245

Today, memes. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Is it a virus, challenge or solicitation?

Social media is known for sparking memes. According to Richard Dawkins, the biologist who first coined the term, a meme is an image, idea, style or behavior that is transmitted from one mind to another by replication and modification, like a catchy melody or children's game. A meme can spread with the speed and limited duration of a virus, like a fashion trend, and can be either meaningful or meaningless, like bra burning or bell-bottom jeans.


Richard Dawkins coined the term, "meme," in his landmark 1976 book, The Selfish Gene (image here is the 2006 Oxford edition).

In social media we're used to memes flooding our inboxes, text chains and feeds. I love an expertly captioned animal picture or topical joke; I'm not so fond of chain letter-type posts that ask you to forward their content to more people. One social media trend that I don't understand is the internet "challenge," in which someone posts an image or list on a specific topic, then invites others to do the same. You've seen the ones, which ask people to post a list of books or personal answers or a certain kind of self-portrait or travel photo. Some of the earliest and most memorable internet challenges involve physical hardship or risk, like extreme eating or pranks and dares, or had a genuine social purpose, such as raising awareness for charity.1


Ice bucket challenge: a charitable internet challenge, and one of the first major internet challenges. "Mission Accomplished - ALS Ice Bucket Challenge" by Anthony Quintano is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

But over time this word, "challenge," has become hollow, as its original association with difficulty has been replaced--in the meme world--by relatively easy actions or content that only directs attention back to the person posting. These memes may be meant in good fun but they can have unexpected consequences. The challenges asking people to post pictures of their children or information about their likes and dislikes, for example, often are a way of harvesting personal data.2

I'm particularly concerned about how these so-called "challenges" displace social connection with narcissism. Memes are records of cultural vitality. They propagate when they strike a chord with people, and die when they lose their collective significance. As a meme, internet challenges show social media's downsides and possibilities. At their best, an internet challenge is a way of reaching out digitally, tapping someone on the shoulder and inviting them to a join the party or help a cause. At their worst, these challenges--which really should be called "solicitations"--are demands that you attend to someone else's ego.

As someone who dabbles in painting and drawing, I love seeing internet challenges that suggest topics for artistic representation or a medium or set of constraints to work in, like still lifes of glassware or sculptures from food or completing a plein air painting in less than an hour.3 I don't always take up the challenge myself, but I'm inspired by the examples that fill up my feed for days afterward. Richard Dawkins's great insight in theorizing memes was that sociality and biology both foster attributes and behaviors. While some memes, as Dawkins suggests, might act like a "selfish gene," we can choose to reproduce those memes which remind us of the beauty of our world and how we can shape and celebrate it.


A drawing for #Inktober, an annual art challenge. "Inktober is over" by Fotero is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

I'm Karen Fang, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.


(Theme music)


Joan Engel Bromwich, "It's the Summer of Challenges." New York Times, August 23, 2018.

Michele Coscia, "Competition and Success in the Meme Pool: A Case Study on Quickmeme.com." Proceedings of the Seventh International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, 2013.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Best Books, 1976

Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, and Sam Ford, Spreadable Media. New York; London: New York University Press. 2013.


1E.g., Abby Ohlheiser, "YouTube's now-banned dangerous pranks were a problem long before the 'Bird Box' challenge." Washington Post, January 17, 2019.

2E.g., Kate O'Neill, "Facebook's '10 Year Challenge' Is Just a Harmless Meme--Right?" Wired, January 15, 2019.

3E.g., "List of Art challenges every artist should take!" Brush Warriors, April 13, 2020; Iva Mikles, "50+ The Ultimate Art Challenges Guide for 2020/2021!" Art Side of Life, November 5, 2020.


This episode was first aired on December 8, 2020