What can ‘Call me maybe’ memes teach us about cultural genetics?

Hey, you just clicked me
And this is crazy
But memes aren’t just for Facebook
So read on, maybe?

The term meme has become very popular in the last couple of years thanks to a trend on social networking. The term is used to describe an array of works – such as images or written passages – grouped around a common unifying theme. But the word meme, unlike “blog” or “tweet”, hasn’t been invented for the digital age.

In fact, it was coined by author Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene as an analogy to illustrate an evolutionary argument. Dawkins labeled ideas with viral qualities as memes and suggested they evolved in a similar way to human genetics. The ideas enter into a shared pool and compete for dominance. The strongest ones express themselves more often and along the way ideas are mutated as they duplicate.

It’s a surprising way to look at the seemingly banal Facebook posts your friends insist on sharing with you. But it can actually shed some light on how some memes are able to evolve and have real staying power.

Take the cheerful pop-hit Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen. If you have an Internet connection and either eyeballs or ears, then you’re probably familiar with the song’s chorus: “Hey, I just met you and this is crazy. But here’s my number, so call me maybe?”

That has been adapted by countless bloggers and social media enthusiasts with a deeply ingrained need to demonstrate their cleverness. Some more modest meme-spreaders will be content with merely posting the text of their re-write. Other, more needy types, will insist in creating a JPEG image with the re-hashed lyrics imprinted, because they know images are totally where it’s at with social media posts right now.

Here’s some examples that show how this meme has evolved:

Here, the meme intermingles with another pop-culture meme that children of the 80s will be familiar with, thanks to the questionable plot device used in Super Mario Bros.

Few Internet memes can continue for long without exhibiting some cat-related mutations.

Cats are by far the most dominant Internet meme.

Finally, the Call Me Maybe meme displays its dominance by becoming totally self-replicating. You can even try creating this meme yourself using this meme generator. That’s automated reproduction.

Dawkins used memes to help his readers understand how the best ideas helped form culture, just as dominant genes contribute towards a human’s biology. Now that the Internet has got its hands on the concept, it’s mostly used to add topical jokes to cute animal pictures and video game screenshots.

Call me crazy, but understanding memes’ behavior as a type of cultural genetics sheds some light on why certain social media posts spread virally, while others fall flat.



Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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