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Verbally Described: Memes
Season 1, Episode 4

What is a Meme? - Episode Notes

But really… What is a meme? We go from the Meme Museum to the beginnings of human cultural evolution and back again, all in search for a coherent answer to the question.

Host:  Wesley Lethem
Mixing, Engineering: Sound Service


Notable Buffoon Chris Cillizza: I think memes would be cooler, if we pronounced them “mem mays”

I’m tired of everyone calling me a mee mee, what even is a mee mee is that some kind of brain tumor?

It’s hard to pin down a specific definition, but the absolute essence is that there’s an image, and there are some words, and usually it’s funny.

*meme chorus*

That would be a good meme

Memes have gone from a word that you aren’t sure how to pronounce, to the bewitching lure that gets us on Facebook every morning

So that’s a bad meme

Got some cringey shit man. Show me what you got, Rage Comics? Yeah lots of rage comics, what a nightmare. Yeah exactly, just like a lot of image macros, Bad Luck Brian. Remember that?

Today we’re going to be doing a special little meme and I think you’re going to like it a lot.

What is a meme? This is an idea and a question that has been kicking around in my brain for a really long time. I mean, we look at them all day. They’re everywhere, being created and spread with varying degrees of success by corporations, meme accounts, governments, your Aunt Linda, foreign and domestic agents wanting to influence elections, churches, grocery stores, someone's 10th grade biology class trying to figure out remote learning, and even us, the people. The consumers. The patrons. We should have some understanding of what they actually are, and how they’re being used.

As I start to put definition and boundary on what a meme really is the whole thing just gets slippery and hard to contain. Is it just funny images with text? What about TikToks and YouTube videos, I feel like those have just as much validity being defined as a meme as Bad Luck Brian and the ilk.

On top of that there’s something fascinatingly unfunny that comes from someone attempting to verbally describe a meme that they saw on the internet.

This is inspired by a John Mulaney skit, you’re in a car with your children.

The storyteller just wants to share the lulz with someone else in conversation,

You see a McDonald’s sign, and the kids are screaming McDonald’s McDonald’s McDonald’s, and there’s three options you can say that we’ve got food at home and you can refuse.

but it’s almost always ruined in the translation.

You can also get excited and take the kids to McDonald’s or you can do the Power Move of pulling in, getting a single black coffee and leaving.

I was talking with my partner about that phenomenon, and she had the idea for me to do just that, verbally describe memes.

It was that idea and this difficulty to describe something that is so integral to our lives that spurred my interest to create this podcast.

What IS a meme? What are the constituent parts of a meme and what does a meme need to be successful? Where did memes come from, are there historic memes? What role do memes fill in our modern society? Are we shaping the memes or are the memes shaping us?

You don’t necessarily have to take memes seriously, but to be serious, we have a daily craving for things that are so dumb that it leaves you with the feeling that I laughed a little bit harder than I should have? I think it’s an escapism.

*clapping* meme review

Hello and welcome to another episode of Verbally Described Memes. Today we’re going to wrestle with what a meme is exactly, and aim to answer these five questions.

To find out the answer for our first and ultimately largest question, what a meme is, I decided to check out a local print shop turned gallery that opened up a Meme Museum.

All across my social media I was seeing a ton of press and buzz about it

Do you know what the term meme means? Well now there’s a whole museum dedicated to this

Let’s check in with Marcella, she’s at the meme museum, hey Marcella.

Meme, M-E-M-E, hi guys! uhm Covid has brought out so many kinds of memes because they’re bored or they need a good laugh. So we’re in Humboldt Park now at the meme museum. Which gives you just that. So check this out, they have walls and walls and walls of memes, I like this one a lot. Me at other people’s houses, vs. me at my house.

and as coronavirus restrictions were not as strict as they are now in late 2020, I figured I’d shoot my shot and reach out for an interview.

Owner and co-founder Renee Costa was more than happy to have me come through, so we scheduled a time for me to come in and check it out.

Once I arrived, masked up with my microphone I went right on in. Turns out that they were double booked that day so I had to work around a Univision interview.

Spanish audio from Univision interview

I took some time to check out the exhibit myself. There were printouts of memes pinned all over with about 20 people navigating the maze of memes while trying to stay socially distant. There were a few custom pieces of work scattered about the space including a fiberglass reproduction of webcomic artist KC Green’s This is Fine dog, a neon sign that said “life is but a meme”, and a graffiti mural adorned with paintings of Michael Jordan crying, Troll Face, Pepe the Frog, Spongebob and Baby Yoda all centered around the name of the gallery, 6th Dimension Space. 

Walking around I asked some of the visitors for their opinion on my question.

Renee and I were able to start talking about how he and his partner Nancy turned their new print shop into the Meme Museum.

[Interview Audio]

After leaving the meme museum my head was buzzing with thoughts and questions, were slogans like “where’s the beef” memes? What did Sandy mean by “meme” being a misuse of the word? How long was my fly down while I was there? I was so focused on socially distancing I only noticed when I got into the car. We’re people looking at me because I was walking around with a microphone? Or because my fly was down?

I needed to get some answers so I turned to the boundless supply of knowledge, the internet. After a quick search I found a couple different answers for my question, what is a meme?

In that last clip from Casually Explained’s YouTube video on this concept, I think that is the most encompassing definition that I can find. An element of culture passed by non-genetic means. No matter if you’re reading a slogan on a billboard or scrolling through memes on your smart phone, that’s all information and elements of culture passed through non-genetic means. It’s a definition, but it’s still so vague and all encompassing. I feel like in modern usage internet memes have spun a certain direction. What is meant by an element of culture? Is our culture then an amalgamation of memes? Where did this come from? Who was the first to coin the phrase meme and what were they using it for?

Turns out it was British evolutionary biologist, and author Richard Dawkins. Here he is reading from a passage of his revolutionary 1976 book, the selfish gene.

Susan Blackmore is another British writer and academic, author of the book “The Meme Machine” and arguably is the most notable in the field of study that was created out of Dawkins’ coining of the word meme, memetics. The scientific study of evolutionary models in the lens of cultural information transfer.

So I actually feel pretty well equipped now to talk about this, meme as a term was created to inspect culture via Darwinian evolution and now due to the near instantaneous evolution and spread of culture through the internet internet memes have splintered off from the original concept.

So taking a look at the second question I had in the beginning, what are the constituent parts of a meme and what does a meme need to be successful? Susan Blackmore takes that on in her book The Meme Machine, and describes it on the TED stage here in 2008.

Memes, elements of our culture have variation, be selected based on their usefulness, efficiency, and beauty, and be passed through the generations via heredity. But what about internet memes?

I feel like we need to take a granular step and rather than jump right to internet memes, we should look at advertisements, jingles, slogans, billboards. The full force of capitalism was thrown behind the development of viral memes in order to sway the purchasing power of the people. In a section from BBC Four’s documentary How to go Viral: The Art of the Meme, they talk with someone who's able to comment on what tools advertisement agencies have used to create successful memes.

How do we measure whether or not your funny Tweet is going to captivate the masses and go viral?

Successful internet memes leverage humor to build connection, symbolism, layers of meaning, and cultural references like other previous successful memes and formats. Internet memes also tap into our human need for connection, to feel seen and accepted by a community.

But before we jump onto the role memes play in our society, what about my third question? Where did memes come from, are there historic memes?

From the interviews and lectures we’ve heard so far the first half of the question seems to be a lot trickier than any other question I had. If we’re to prescribe to Susan Blackmore’s big brain theory, that memes and copying those we saw around us drove the increase in brain size necessary for our survival, then memes may have come from our genes, or the other way around? It’s very confusing, what do we do with knowledge that other animals have memetic behavior like imitation? Does this then mean that there are animal cultures? Do all biologic things that imitate other biologic things live under the influence of two distinct replicators, memes and genes? I don’t know, and I don’t purport to say I’m smart enough to tell you. But the second half of the question, that’s more my wheelhouse. There ARE in fact historic memes that can be seen as similar to the internet memes of today

Kilroy is a great early meme, and very true to the classical definition of ‘to be imitated’. It spread virally during World War II by hands of American GI’s abroad, and it’s considered to be derived from another graffiti from another World War. Australian GI’s sketched out a very similar looking bald headed man peeking over a fence with the text “Foo was here”. It’s thought that FOO is an acronym for Forward Observation Officer. If this is true, then by the addition of the doodle to the original military markings it’s now a meme and gets riffed on, further removing it from its origins decades later.

Memes are intrinsic to our culture as our culture that exists today is composed of stitched together memes. Round wheels allow for easy transport, ornamentation yields a high probability of securing a mate, all behavior that was virally spread through communities that then in turned shaped future evolutions of those concepts.

Daniel Dennett is an American philosopher and studys memetics as well.

So, fourth question. What role do memes fill in our modern society?

In the past memes occurred naturally, and their influence was across the board. Mostly helpful, but some things came about and didn’t really have a logical reason to be replicated. This deviation from hyper efficiency is what created the world we see today. So what then do we have when memes are intentionally created using a tool that allows for historically unparalleled distribution?

The influence of the meme depends on the intentions of the person creating the meme, and the reception of the meme. It also depends on if and how the meme is replicated and modified. For example, if I wanted to create a funny meme because I’m seeking that sweet sweet validation online my intention is going to show through. In this case it’s an egotistical desire to try and make strangers laugh and in turn mutually benefit by receiving their praise.

By stretching and modifying and remixing memes and pulling in more and more specific and obscure cultural references, we’re finding camaraderie with an “in-group”. Or at least revealing connections that might not be immediately recognizable. Internet memes are for the most part people created, people approved, and people shared media. But there’s plenty of internet memes that were created with a different intention than getting us to laugh or trying to go viral.

By featuring specific brands in their memes, or by creating memes for a brand there’s a new age of advertisement on the internet. The profession of the influencer is an excellent example of this. Traditional advertising agencies in the past would be thrilled to have the reach that’s available today via memes. Having the ability to put their product in front of the masses and influencers themselves wanting to grow their audience and become internet famous work hand in hand to fund the venture and grow revenue for the brand.

Memes can also be a new revolutionary container for information. Because of their efficiency and difficulty to regulate, protest organizers, political revolutionaries, and governments themselves all have an eye on memes today. Pro-Democracy protesters in Hong Kong can be seen in viral videos and images using everyday objects in new ways to counter crowd control and riot police techniques. Like using traffic cones to quickly neutralize tear gas, using umbrellas as a lightweight shield against rubber bullets, hockey sticks to slapshot canisters of gas back at the throwers, and leaf blowers to clear the air. All tools that have been recently seen in action on the other side of the globe in the protests in the summer of 2020 in America in response to the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other black lives through institutionally racist police forces.

Memes have also been used as a method to disseminate information. On America’s path towards racial justice and the liberation of Black Lives, memes have been shared by activists, abolitionists, and everyday people to spread new ideas and new viewpoints on things that may have gone overlooked due to an abundance of privilege.

However, there’s a element of danger in how easy it is to share an infographic and signal that you’re doing racial justice work without actually grappling with one’s own racist tendencies or the ongoing police and prosecutorial injustice as Feminsta Jones talks about with Naomi Ekperigin in a segment here from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.

While it may have seemed to people that their intention was in good faith when people spammed black squares on Instagram as a “media blackout” in a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This was actually a bad meme as it effectively suppressed and silenced black voices.

Memes as elements of culture can also be created by and for a specific community or group. This can heighten and amplify the discourse, or give validity behind misinformation or lies through mass approval and sharing. If a viral meme is created with the intent to go viral and contains falsehoods yet presents itself as informational, this can be massively powerful in swaying opinions and confirming biases that the reader may have already held. Often this can be done with impunity as the virality of a meme obfuscates the creator.

The political nature of memes and memes as a political tool cannot be understated. Given that internet memes have been in full force for well over a decade at this point anyone who cannot and will not adapt to the internet and internet memes are going to be left in the dust, evidenced in the 2020 congressional losses by house Democrats. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has recently hit on this.

Given our position in a global pandemic and being socially distanced, information and misinformation spread like never before and it has the potential to be more impactful on human lives than ever before in history. It seems as though that we’re caught between the intentions of our fellow humans, and the influence the memes that they create have.

So this all gets me back to my final question. Are we shaping the memes or are the memes shaping us? And to be honest it’s hard not to feel a bit bleak about the answer. We are the culmination of memes throughout time, we are intrinsically and potentially biologically designed through the arms race of genes and memes. So of course each person that creates a meme is doing so with an intent, sometimes this intent is to influence the world that they see around them. And in the consumption of memes, we are having an incredible amount of information being filtered into our brain from untold sources and uncertain validity. The information that one person sees scrolling through their social media timelines can come from a myriad of sources with all varying intents. I feel strongly that for the most part people are good, and want to make good memes. And if that's what you consume you’ll get more of it thanks to the algorithm.

But if you find yourself motivated and activated by negative memes, as it is our psychological conditioning to do so, you’ll see more of that.

So I, as with many people, consume funny, heartwarming, and informational content that is advancing the medium of internet memes by rapidly evolving and changing formats. Because that’s what arouses my interest.

I do fear that with the competition for effectiveness of memes, and the growing divides in specifically American culture but also human kind globally, we’re going to be left with insular communities sharing memes that confirm biases and tropes about the other insular communities. This pits ourselves against one another for the sake of virality, for the sake of appealing to your in-group in an effort to receive praise, for the sake of turning your fellow humans into the “other” and laughing at their ways.

I still remain hopeful about internet memes, creator of the term Dawkins finishes out his book the Selfish Gene with the following passage.

Everything that I’ve touched upon in this episode has only been skin deep, in trying to create a coherent episode covering the entire concept of “What is a meme” I’ve had to distill it. In future episodes I’ll be turning my focus onto more granular aspects of memes, internet memes, and internet culture. Thank you all for listening.

This episode was written and recorded by me, Wesley Lethem. Editing and production by Sound Service, which is also me. Story editing support by Savannah Jubic. Music and those robot voices I love so much are made available by Kevin MacLeod and Full notes on this episode are available via a link in the show notes including links to everything I mentioned today, a transcript, and all sources for content I included. Which for this week, was a LOT.

A special thank you goes out to Renee and Nancy at 6th Dimension Space for letting me come in and bug you about memes. They just wrapped up a horror themed pop up, and I’m excited to see what is next for them, be sure to stop in and check them out. Thank you to Sarah Smail who’s interview audio was also included in this episode. And a final thank you to everyone for listening. Please take a moment to leave a rating or a review if you have the time, and tell a friend who you think might like this content. It’d mean the world to me. I’ll see you in two weeks with another episode, unless it runs long like this one, then I might need a touch more time.

Story Arc:
  1. Introduction
  2. What is a meme?
    1. Loved the awkward moment when someone verbally described a meme
    2. It was hard to define and so I grew more interested
    3. Given their widespread distribution and impact on culture I grew even more interested
  3. Going to different sources to find out
    1. The Meme Museum
    2. Talking with friends
  4. Definition of the word
    1. Common usage vs scientific definition
    2. Brad Kim from Know Your Meme vs. Dawkins & Blackmore vs. person on the street
  5. Structure of memes
  6. Historical perspective
    1. Cultural traits as method of survival, Blackmore on brain size
    2. Cultural symbols - Cave paintings, V Sign, Advertisements as progenitors
      1. Kilroy was here
  7. Role that memes serve in society
    1. Camaraderie with others, finding an “in-group”
    2. By and for the people
      1. Meme publishers like Lad Bible post content
    3. Development and advancement of culture
    4. Imitation as a form of social currency
    5. Dissemination of information, good and bad
  8. Bringing it all together to answer my original questions


Rationally Speaking Episode 24: Memetics - RS24 - Memetics! - Have Internet memes lost their meaning? - Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins introduces the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors' Showcase 2013 in Cannes and spreads his memes. - Daniel Dennett: Memes 101 | How Cultural Evolution Works - Is it 𝓘𝓼𝓸𝓹𝓸𝓭 𝓗𝓸𝓾𝓻 yet? - [MEME REVIEW] #7 - Casually Explained: Memes - What Is a Meme? | Younger (Season 4) | TV Land - The power of internet memes to shape who we all are | Shontavia Johnson | TEDxAtlanta - Real Meaning Behind The Word "Meme" - What Makes A Meme Go Viral? - The BA Test Kitchen Meets Meme Appétit | Behind the Meme | Bon Appétit - How to Make Money with Memes - Funny To Money - What Is The Greatest Meme Of The Decade? - STOP CALLING ME A MEME - The Science of Dank Memes - Why 2020 is the ‘meme election’ Chris Cillizza is a fucking baboon - The World War II meme that circled the world, Kilroy was here - Grandayy's Meme Awards 2019 - The "Mee Mee" Girl can't say meme. - The Joy of Memeing with Bob Ross - Justin Baragona


The defensiveness and outrage exhibited here by these Fox News hosts when their liberal colleague says "it's not time to joke" about coronavirus amid spiking deaths and hospitalizations is really telling. - Pop-up meme museum opens its doors in Humboldt Park - New meme museum pops up in Humboldt Park - Door bell sound effect - ¿Sabías que hay un museo dedicado a los ‘memes’? En el Auriespacio te contamos dónde queda - Susan Blackmore Memes and ‘Temes’ on TED - Luffy’s record scratch.wav no changes were made to the sound. - Why Protest Tactics Spread Like Memes - The memes of the Hong Kong protests PRI’s The World

Music Attribution:

Hot Milk by Ujico / Snail’s House


Blippy Trance by Kevin MacLeod



Funkorama by Kevin MacLeod



Rollin At 5 by Kevin MacLeod



Wholesome by Kevin MacLeod



Investigations by Kevin MacLeod



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Verbally Described: Memes

Recording Engineering
Education & Training Voiceover & Narration
Field Recording