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The Internet meme

A meme is "an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture," according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Sort of like a germ, except memes are funnier -- and too often, nastier. That photo of a grumpy cat you received via email from one friend and then forwarded to all your friends? That's a meme. That stupid catchphrase you suddenly find yourself using? It's a meme. Memes mutate, evolve and pass on their characteristics to little memes just like all the rest of the species do. What may come as a surprise to some is that memes were not created by the Internet. The word was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, the Selfish Gene.

It's just that nowadays, memes multiply much faster than they did back in the 1970s. They breed at the speed of light.

Take Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" quote in the presidential debate last Wednesday. Within minutes, the Internet exploded with memes. One, featuring a smirking Bill Clinton, said, "Stop the debate. I want to hear more about this binder..." Another, showing a laughing Romney, said "Binder? I just met her!" There are memes of women crawling out of binders, women dancing on them, women distraught that they were not included in one...

Once upon a time, we like to believe, elections were determined by a thorough examination of complex issues (although that is debatable). In the last few years, Twitter has become a major moulder of public opinion. Is it possible this election will swing on a meme? Why not? They are simple, direct, funny -- and easy to remember. A tweet, at 140 characters, is much too nuanced.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 20, 2012 J2

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