Exam­ple of an Inter­net Obama meme. Source: whits​blog​.com

Through the elec­tion sea­son, memes will mul­ti­ply like mush­rooms. The objec­tive of our new series “Meme Watch” is to exam­ine those memes care­fully (whether they come from the Right or the Left), and try to deter­mine what we used to call the “vorac­ity” of each meme.

What is a meme? The Daily Meme defines it at some length, but for those who don’t want to bother with a longer ver­sion, here’s mine. It’s a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Self­ish Gene. It’s a cul­tural idea or theme that is sub­ject to repro­duc­tion and muta­tion, just like a gene. In that way, it’s sort of a com­bi­na­tion of a mem­ory and a gene, hence the name.

An exam­ple of the purest form of meme is the urban leg­end, orig­i­nally stud­ied by folk­lorist Jan Harold Brun­vand and the sub­ject of the Usenet news­group alt.folklore.urban which has now itself mutated into the web­site snopes​.com. I was one of the orig­i­nal con­trib­u­tors to alt.folklore.urban, and it was there that I picked up the habit of typ­ing “vorac­ity” when I meant “verac­ity”. Some­one on the news­group, long before I came, had made that typ­ing error, and it stuck as a shib­bo­leth, a way that alt.folklore.urban reg­u­lars could rec­og­nize mem­bers of the “in group”. It’s a great sub­sti­tu­tion, because memes tend to become “vora­cious”, devour­ing truth and clar­ity of thought as they take over pop­u­lar culture.

When I was a child, I was told a story by my mother that both she and I believed to be true. We lived near White Rock Lake at what was then the outer edge of Dal­las, Texas. Mom told me about The Lady of White Rock Lake. Many other towns and cities have their own ver­sion. This urban leg­end (and its twins) was the tit­u­lar sub­ject of Brunvand’s first book, The Van­ish­ing Hitch­hiker. In this urban leg­end, a man dri­ving near a lake picks up an attrac­tive female hitch­hiker who is sop­ping wet. He gives her a ride home, and she leaves an item of cloth­ing behind in his care (usu­ally a wet sweater). When he attempts to return the sweater the next day, he finds she had drowned in the same lake on an anniver­sary day one, or two, or more years earlier.

Before Brun­vand made it an aca­d­e­mic pur­suit, this story became the basis for a num­ber of pop­u­lar songs, such as “Bring­ing Mary Home”, “Lau­rie (Strange Things Hap­pen)”, and “Misty Water Woman”. A quick lis­ten to each of these is a good intro­duc­tion to how memes work.

Memes are par­tic­u­larly use­ful in pol­i­tics. Those are the kind of memes we’ll be exam­in­ing in the Meme Watch series. I’m kick­ing the series off with a meme that popped up again this week: is Pres­i­dent Barack Obama arro­gant? (more…)