Guest Post: The Evolution of a Meme’s Highway

Posted on February 29, 2012


The official description for the word meme is an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within our societies. The game known as Chinese whispers pops into mind as one avenue of meme travel. So Beethoven’s symphony, The Matrix Trilogy or even the story of Jesus Christ are all classified as meme’s (although many of these may be more than one meme or have others hidden within them). A story must be brainstormed before it can be created. If written well then the meme that the writer withheld should be passed on to the readers minds, however, open to interpretation of course.

This article was not written to explain what a meme is. if you would like to learn any more about meme’s then please read ‘Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene’ whereas he coins the word. Therefore my reason for this article and the argument that is explained is to discuss how meme’s travel from one person to another, and how our environments around us have been altered due to the development of meme highways.

The need argument

Unless otherwise proven we must assume that meme’s have been with us since the dawn of man. The issue here is that the first men would not have the ability of language beside grunting and moans, no written scripture or melodies. So these early primitive meme’s lifespans were as long as the longevity of their original host. They had no way of travel from one mind to the next. My argument is how meme’s have altered ourselves and changed our cultures for their own selfish survival. So for them to survive they must of needed to escape. They would have to find a way to replicate themselves. If done correctly they could survive across the minds of generations. There first great escape would be down one rocky road, in the form of paintings on cave walls.

However art falls into interpretation, one man could look at a painting and have a complete different  opinion than another could. Even though this is the same for language there’s a lot less room for choice, you get what you are told. There has been no known evidence displaying when or even how language began. In 1866 the linguistic society of Paris banned any debates on such a subject because to find such an answer would be far to complex to work out. In my own opinion the reason language found its way to every man’s tongue, had to be because of these early primal meme’s rocketing within their heads. They needed to escape and replicate for their very own survival.

So as language evolved it eventually became a possibility to draw each spoken meaning as a  symbol. Art and speech merged and created one of the earliest known forms of Written expression known as Cuneiform. Cuneiform emerged in the summer of the 30th Century BC. This was a method of pictographs. As time went by the language gradually simplified from around 1000 characters to averagely 400 unique characters. Being completely replaced later by the alphabetic writing within the Roman Era that we are all used to today. Meme’s had gained new paths of travel, not just art but speech and written language could cement each ideal forever, the first pillars to their highways were fused in place.

So there was early ways for ideas to travel. Man could communicate his thoughts with others via art and speech. They could also inspire other meme’s into existence. But if you think about it speech and art were a necessity for mankind to advance. A lot would have ceased to exist without them. Masons couldn’t build without blueprints full of language and designs. Scholars couldn’t record there findings. Civil conversation would have been impossible. To be able to stress my argument further I must discuss an area which shows that information highways were created simply because of a meme’s existence and not because of human necessity. Looking back into our earlier culture it is apparent a lot of disciplines appeared, which were solely for entertainment. One of these being acting. In my opinion proof that these highways were being built for our ideal travellers.

The want Argument.

According to Ancient Greek sources the first actor to play a character on stage was Thespis. He introduced the style where one singer or actor would preform the words of individual characters. They would use different masks to aid the distinction between such characters. Thespis coined this new style Tragedy and he himself was known as the most popular exponent of such style.

However Tragedy would of began as a simple meme. It must have been an idea first circling around the mind of Thespis. This just shows how far through space and time they can truly travel since still to this day people still act out characters. Now lets jump a few centuries forward and discuss one of the most renown writers in history, William Shakespeare. His surviving works consist of 38  plays, 2 long narrative poems and 154 sonnets. But Instead of analysing his work I would like to discuss his development on characters more directly. the archetypical roles that he created which still affect storytelling to this day.

Romeo and Juliet were the ill fated lovers. Now many upon many stories have been written on ill fated lovers. One to use as an example would be the Hit Blockbuster film Titanic. How many main protagonists in storytelling have been courageous heroes? Shakespeare’s Richard II was one. Although some of Shakespeare’s characters were based on fables and myths his stand out as originals. The majority of his ideals and personalities are now cemented within our conscious since birth. Not his directly but all the others that have replicated from those archetypes again and again over time. They are the reason we want to grow up and be courageous and honourable, because our favourite heroic characters were courageous and honourable. Who in turn were inspired by courageous and honourable stories.

The confident Hero as a protagonist won’t be going anywhere any time soon. But lets think about a world where we never developed speech. Could we have created writing? Without writing there would have been limitations when telling stories and without a story there ain’t no act. So that same courageous heroic meme may not have had anyway of survival, and wouldn’t be able to replicate itself over time. But because of that meme’s existence and many before it, these avenues were created by man. Because they wanted to release these intelligent ideas for the whole world to see, they wanted to be heard.

When Shakespeare created his art, mankind’s tools of distribution were not large enough to reach the masses of the world. The only way people could view his works would be by purchasing such writings or going to view one of his plays. However during the 20th century a new way of distributing information was being developed via recording. The first tool used to record was known as the Phonautograph , which captured sound, however, it could not replay such sound. Though it did lead to inspire Thomas Edison and others to experiment with such technology. The first musical film was made in 1896 by George Thomas. It was a series of still images depicting the song ‘The Little Lost Child.’

How far they had come, once destined to die with their host to being able to travel around the globe. Although in the beginning not everybody could watch films (Only the rich had such an option.) but now what household doesn’t own a Television? The majority of us sit down and watch that trusted box everyday. But even TV had its limitations, it became streamlined and full of propaganda. Shows could only be watched when the stations decided you could watch them. But this all changed as the meme’s highways grew even larger and reached there next revolutionary stepping stone, known as the internet.

The Internet

Computing was developed in the 1950s. Although very basic one computer would have took up a whole room of space. As time progressed and more and more households started to purchase TVs by the 1980s the concept for interconnected networks known as an internet was being discussed. Jump another decade and that idea was to be released to the commercial masses making a dramatic impact on our culture and commerce. So this means even the internet started of as just a simple meme, which would in turn help house and pass on billions of other meme’s.

Communication grew with the use of the world wide web, however, in its early days the digital space was but only a wild wild west. The only people who could capitalise and in turn pass their own meme’s on were the experienced programmers who actually created it. But eventually there early meme’s created highways within this wild west, it started to become more structured, less chaotic. One good example of an early internet meme would have been Google, a search engine. without its usefulness it would be near impossible to travel the rocky landscape of the internet. More and more people started to plug in, and in turn they created. Blogs, chat rooms, and again blogs and chat rooms merged to give us social networks. Facebook was just a meme circling around in Mark Zuckerberg’s head long before it was created and given to the people.

So to conclude my argument I believe there are two sides of a coin when it comes to creation. It is either that we as humans create our own ideas. But In my opinion we create because of our ideas. That maybe these ideas, these stories, acts, songs, poems were never ours to begin with. We are just the workers to produce them. To explain further, if you have ever written anything think about it was it really you who created that idea? Or did you just agree on certain parts with your subconscious? That same muse who plays films every night when you sleep. He is the true creator, we just agree with his developments and with our selfish ego’s try to take recognition for such ideas.

So what great and interesting meme’s will pop into existence next? What ways of travel will we create for them in the future? I do no have such answers but I do not doubt they are circling round and round in some man or woman’s mind as you read this. I look forward to seeing the next revolutionary creations.


Mathew Wrigley is a Computer Games Designer at the University of Huddersfield who writes in his spare time on a variety of topics consisting from philosophy to horror. He can be contacted at

To view any of his current work please view his current blogs. (These are currently new and may lack sufficient work at this time. All blogs are subject to change.)