According to Google, a meme is pretty innocuous: “A humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.”

There is also another, more traditional definition of the word from Urban Dictionary: “A pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind.” Not so innocuous.

Many are also looking to find out what makes a meme popular and what makes one die out, but there is no conclusive evidence yet. However, scholars and online marketers seem to agree that memes are tightly tied to popular opinion. In fact, IAMCR accepted a presentation by Dr. Thomas Roessing in 2015, discussing “Internet memes as a form of public opinion expression.”

Influence of Herd Mentality

The viral qualities of a meme also give it the power to influence, not just express, popular opinion by taking advantage of a phenomenon social psychologists call “the herd mentality” — where we are socially influenced, on an almost instinctual level, to adopt certain thoughts and behaviours. Throughout history, the herd mentality has helped us in emergency situations where going with the flow has protected us from dangers and disasters like predators, explosions, floods and fires. With memes as the carrier and catalyst, it also helped to shape cultures, governments, and — more recently — even explains many fashion trends and consumer behavior.

Pilcrow Grumpy Cat
Grumpy Cat at Toy Fair 2014 with Ganz products”by Ricky Brigante—CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

‍However, we also see many disturbing memes that trivialize the struggles of others and make light of controversial issues (i.e. a certain Holocaust meme, and a certain Down Syndrome meme; both, by the way, have garnered many likes and shares before they were taken down). Regardless of whether they’re just distasteful jokes or an expression of genuine opinions, if we thoughtlessly jumped on that sharing bandwagon and gone with the flow, will we really benefit?

Thinking for Ourselves

Research found that 59% of people share a piece of content without fully understanding what it is that they’re sharing. More importantly, according to Kerry Jones at Marketingland, many of us are sharing viral content from an emotional standpoint, rather than with an intellectual mindset.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant, in his 1784 essay “What is Enlightenment?”, believed that it’s not a “lack of understanding,” but rather a “lack of resolution and courage to use it,” that prevents us from striving for independent thought, and urges us to “have the courage to use [our] own understanding.”

And while the “herd mentality” may save our lives, it could also be the thing that kills innovation.

We’re a deeply creative species with so much potential for innovation, and we have evolved to thrive at the top of the food chain because of our ability to create. And while the “herd mentality” may save our lives, it could also be the thing that kills innovation (according to a UBC study via Phys.org). History has shown that it’s often the unpopular, yet revolutionary, ideas that spark a new level of discourse and understanding of our world.

Pilcrow Nabaz Mob
Nabaz’mob Antoine Schmitt & Jean Jacques Birgé, 2006” by Antoine SCHMITT—CC BY-NC 2.0

Remember when people used to be scared of computers and when “computerphobia” was a fashionable term used to describe the aversion to touching, owning, or having anything to do with a computer? Popular opinion was that computers would control us and make us their slaves. Since then, PCs have become critical tools that help to shape our society and further our education — developments that wouldn’t have been possible if PCs had waned and died under the initial cries of fear and rejection.

And when Alfred Wegener first proposed his theories on continental drift, he was widely ridiculed, his worked criticized and called “delirious ravings.” If it weren’t for Wegener’s persistence, despite fervent disagreement from his peers, we probably wouldn’t have known to look for the evidence that would ultimately prove his theories correct. Today, his theories have blossomed into the science of plate tectonics — knowledge that keeps our cities standing and protects millions of lives.

Original ideas and thought are prerequisites to innovation. With memes becoming so widespread and commonplace, we may need to be more vigilant and learn to focus more on critical, original thought and discourse. Next time you’re on Facebook, ask yourself this: Why are you sharing this meme?