A Message Through The Decades

It is safe to say, the first thought that comes to mind when one says the word “meme” is either a viral video, or a picture that uses the internet as its main mode of transmission. Recently a meme has arisen that originated not only halfway around the world, but also lay forgotten for over fifty decades. Its resurgence came by luck, and since then it has become a global icon. The meme is composed of four simple words, and a picture of a crown hovering above the words. In contrast to other recent memes, the memetic phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” became viral in the physical world, before using the internet as a way to circulate around the globe.

A meme and gene are synonymous in many aspects. Memes and genes share the three characteristics of variation, the ability to change, heredity, the ability to replicate, and differential fitness, the ability for the best-fit gene/meme to survive and replicate. The memetic phrase, “Keep Calm and Carry On” posses all three of the characteristics listed above.  The phrase originated in Great Britain during World War II as propaganda to raise the morale of the British people as the threat of a Nazi invasion bore down upon their country. While millions of the posters were designed and created, after the war

The Keep Calm and Carry On propaganda poster.

most stayed forgotten in storage. Over fifty years later Stuart and Mary Manley, owners of the England Bookshop Barter Books, rediscovered one of the original posters. Subsequently, the owners who knew nothing of its origins displayed the poster in the shop. The forgotten propaganda that reemerged as a decorative poster in a small bookstore in England quickly caught the attention of more than a few people; within nine years the store had sold over 40,000 copies of the poster.

The greatest change, or variation that the memetic poster has gone through is the transformation from a propaganda sign endorsing a type of behavior, to a poster that endorses an idea. The poster was originally meant to not only raise the morale of the people of Great Britain, but also to encourage a sense of unity. The crown at the top was meant to remind the people what was at stake if “calm” was replaced by “panic;” the crown symbolized the people of Great Britain’s shared heritage and country.  Nowadays, the poster’s popularity has grown from its ability to eloquently express the idea of overcoming obstacles. The purpose of the poster to inspire perseverance in the face of adversity resonates with people from many different environments and even decades. People of every decade are burdened with trials; in the 1940s it was WWII, in the 2000s it is the recession. According to the website, http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/keep-calm-and-carry-on which highlights several important facts about the success of the Keep Calm meme, sales for the poster really took off in 2009, which is when the recession began to claim people’s jobs and homes. The poster’s success at replication is due to its ability to resonate with people of different backgrounds.

Propaganda posters that were meant to raise morale during WW II.

The meme was originally part of a large memeplex. It was one of three posters created by the British government in order to raise the morale of the citizens of Great Britain during WW II. The  other two propaganda posters are shown to the  right. One of the reasons why the Keep Calm and Carry On slogan became a widespread meme in the present, while the other two slogans from the same memeplex faded into obscurity, comes from the fact that Keep Calm and Carry On can be applied to many situations. While the other two posters only apply to war, the Keep Calm Slogan was able to adapt to different environments. It can be said that the Keep Calm slogan has variable and differential fitness.

The memetic phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” embodies one of the most exciting aspects of meme theory. One of the most exciting aspects of the meme theory is that memes travel both longitudinally and horizontally, meaning they spread not only across one generation but to the next generation as well. The Keep Calm meme existed for over fifty years in obscurity, before being resurrected by a new generation. Now this generation has carried the meme over oceans and spread it across different nations. If ideas did not have the ability to pass from one generation to the next, then its possible civilization would never have flourished. Each generation builds off the ideas of past generations. However, while memes helped create civilization, they also have the ability to undermine it. Memes do not always benefit society. Susan Blackmore, the author of The Meme Machine discusses how memes are “selfish” and their only power is “replicating power.” Further she quotes the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who coined the term meme, as saying, “memes would spread for their own benefit, independently of any benefit to the genes.” An example of a meme that can be harmful to civilization itself is evident in the nuclear arms race between Russia and the United States. During the cold war both countries believed that in order to survive it was necessary to create as many nuclear weapons as possible. This meme or idea persists to this day, with countries such as North Korea and Iran trying to create nuclear weapons. The result of this idea is the creation and spread of thousands of weapons of mass destruction.  While some memes such as the Keep Calm posters have the power to inspire generations, other memes can be costly to many generations.

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