Memes and New Literacy Education

While reading about memes in the context of “cultural production” I realized I first needed to wrap my head around what actually constitutes a proper meme.  I had only encountered the word once before when a friend sent me a link to a YouTube video called “The Google Verb Meme Thing” (  She sent the link with a message that said, “You will love this, it totally made me think of you” but, while I was watching, I couldn’t understand what I was watching and why.  I didn’t know what a meme was, let alone what The Google Verb Meme Thing was, and by the end of the one minute and forty-seven second video I felt as though I must be a complete cultural illiterate.  After reading chapter 9 in the New Literacies Sampler, “Online Memes, Affinities, and Cultural Production,” I feel a little bit better.  In the formal discourse of memetics, The Google Verb Meme Thing is nothing more than a mildly infectious phenomenon, as it doesn’t meet the criteria necessary to be classified as a bona-fide meme.

Knobel and Lankshear view memes as “recognizable, bounded phenomena that have material effects in the world and that can be scrutinized.”  Examples of memes, outside of web-spread instances of pop-cultural reference are things such as viral marketing campaigns, fashion trends, catch-phrases, specific production methodology, universally recognizable melodies, etc.  Richard Dawkins (1976) suggested that a meme, in order to be successful needed to meet three basic criteria: fidelity (the characteristics of the meme allow it to be passed along more or less in its original form), fecundity (how widely and quickly spread a meme may be) and longevity (self-explanitory)  Knoble and Lankshear point out that it is more important for a meme to be memorable than it is for it to be important or useful.  How then can a simple, and seemingly unimportant cultural phenomenon benefit literacy education?

Knoble and Lankshear use Freire and Street’s definition of Literacy, with a “big L” as “making meaning in ways that are tied directly to life and to being in the world.”  Memes, as cultural commentary, social activism, and even as a overstated and humorous celebration of the mundanity of daily life, tie very much into the social, meaning-making aspects of New Literacy.

Teaching students to identify and analyze online memes engages them in critical thinking skills that will allow them to identify phenomena that are influencing not only our culture and the world, but also the memes that are pervasive in their own minds.  Equipped with both a micro and macro capacity for recognizing and understanding the function of memes, students may have a better understanding of how small actions can translate into great ones.


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