From the Meme to the Gif and Beyond


The meme

The idea of a meme as a fundamental unit of cultural meaning was introduced by the scientist Richard Dawkins, who was certainly less rigorous in his examination of this cultural phenomenon than he was in his study of the human genome. He was curious about how ideas are transmitted like viruses, about their impact on evolution, and his theory of the meme is an interesting one.

The text-stamped image we’ve come to think of as a meme is an example of ‘meme’ in Dawkins’ sense, as it transmits cultural meaning, but it is by no means a defining example. We could think of it as a figure of speech, or a trope. As a trope, its impact across the virtual landscape has been incontestably phenomenal.

Figure of speeches are literally the crystallization of meaning in a phrase or word and a trope is a particular figure of speech that literally means ‘turning’, and denotes the twisting of some phrase or word into some other meaning. What we’ve come to think of as the internet meme is usually a trope because one meaning is piggybacking onto another. Usually this is just the crude juxtaposition of text upon an image from our collective cultural repository.

First you must remove the meme from your own eye so you can see clearly to remove the meme from your brother’s eye.

Most Internet memes are actually examples of meiosis. From the Greek ‘lessoning’, meiosis uses understatement. This can be for comic effect, but because it strives to minimize, its also effective propaganda that can blunt the implementation of a radical agenda. Most Internet memes at present also use human or animal faces and expressions. With virus like rapidity, they have been astonishingly effective in changing people’s attitudes about a range of issues.


A gif has come to mean image much as doc has come to mean a text document. The gif is one of the essential building blocks of much visual web content. The volition with which we grab images and stuff them with meanings was demonstrated this year when the Oxford University Press recognized the word as both a noun and a verb, as in “That’s a great picture, I want to gif that.”

Gifs are virtually unique among image formats in being able to contain a packet of images to create simple animation and with the possibility of adding sound this could evolve into a whole new mechanism for delivering new meanings.

When you add music and sound the possibilities are endless, particularity for adding a new cache of images into the collective mind. Though at present the tools for the creation of radical new art forms are strictly controlled, the popularity of Vine and Instagram testify to the appetite people have for capturing images—and impressing their own meanings on them.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Documentary film maker Werner Hertzog was allowed with a film crew inside the Chauvet cave in Southern France, where stunning color paintings of their world’s megafauna stun and enliven the senses. Thousands of years before written language, animals on the walls of caves at Lascaux are the first evidence of representational thinking. One of the researchers on the crew demonstrated how firelight could be manipulated to provide the illusion of a Bison in motion, a flickering that resembles in every way today’s simple animated gif. Add in hypnotic drumming, ceremony, and story and you have the worlds first moving picture show.

Some of the paintings were created deep inside the caverns at nearly inaccessible locations. Anthropologists has speculated that this position indicates the cave paintings were a religious experience that required a journey into the dark. Note that they were mostly animals, just as animated gifs of today. Is it too much to suggest that the bisons of Lascaux were the gifs of the ancient world? Perhaps the cultural priests of that day had as many reasons as ours to keep their own populace enthralled.

Back into the Cave of Meaning

Regardless of these speculations, it is fascinating that we are returning today to this simple animation, which marked humanity’s first known attempt at semantics. Language today is in a state of flux, and the collective mind hungry for a new cache of images. Returning to Dawkins’ theory of the meme, he envisioned a culture of meaning of increasingly complexity—not increasing simplicity.

Beyond the gif we may theorize a new form of story telling, and a new type of language that relies heavily on visual and sound cues. A return into the cave of meaning is essential if we want to build a new mythology rich enough to power us through our next evolution.

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