Micro Memes

Now that the term “meme” has entered our vernacular, I think it’s time to take another evolutionary step in the terminology and the thinking behind it.

In meteorology, one major area is the study of tornadoes, one of the deadliest and—to the 10-year-old boy in me—coolest phenomenon in the natural world. These terrifying creatures are becoming ever more powerful and frequent, including the F5 in May of 2013 that hit the hometown of a good friend of mine from Oklahoma.

But the phenomenon of sudden, short-lived, whirling columns of air is not limited to the CNN-reported catastrophic kind. Maritime version of tornadoes are called “water spouts”. And tiny versions of tornadoes, the kind you can see in farm fields or in parking lots during hot late summer days, are called “dirt devils”. An appropriate, colloquial typology, in other words.

Memes are very similar to tornadoes and even larger systems, such as thunderstorms and hurricanes, in that they’re circulating, self-repeating, and tend to build in energy when the right momentum is established. They are “storms of ideas”. But not all memes are created equal.

If you think about it, all of the ideas that have established themselves in our society and therefore transformed us—from technologies such as the combustion engine and the telephone, to folk tales and archetypes such as Cinderella and Prince Charming, to brands that have a lasting hold on us—are memes, in the way that a tornado or a hurricane is a whirling system of air. In fact, the better analogy for these deeper, more archetypal memes is phenomena such as El Nino or the Gulf Stream; cyclical currents which have affected climates across the planet for eons.

So, just as you would never point to a dirt devil and scream, “Look out, it’s a tornado!” (unless you were joking or pulling a prank), we should call a spade a spade when it comes to little short-term trends like a Miley Cyrus video or annoying verbal expressions like “literally”, which was all the rage a few years ago. (Editor-in-Chief of GQ Jim Nelson writes about this in the latest issue of GQ, referring to it as the “Annoying Affectation of the Year” of 2011.)

Yes, these little trends are memetic, but to call them memes is overkill. So let’s call them “micro memes” as a reminder to ourselves that memes of all sizes and life spans pervade human civilization, but some are more significant than others.