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When Richard Dawkins first coined the word “meme”, he described it as “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” The mental equivalent of a gene, it is something we pass from parent to child, though the mental rather than physical nature of the meme allows it to be passed from any person to any other person regardless of their parentage.
Of course, the internet has taken that word and twisted it somewhat, using “meme” to refer to viral pictures and video, things we might once have called “image macros”. A meme in the colloquial sense doesn’t seem to have much in common with a gene anymore.
But whenever my four-year-old son describes something as “epic”, or wants to see “the one with the cat that’s a Pop Tart in space”, or runs up to me and breathlessly informs me that “Daddy, daddy, there was a cat… and it was playing the keyboard!”, I begin to suspect that there isn’t that much of a difference after all. I have passed on to my son my eyes, my nose, the curl of my toes, and a thousand obscure pop-culture references that he has picked up on and gleefully spreads to others despite having no context for them whatsoever.