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“Dawkins and other scientists have suggested that memes compete, reproduce and evolve just as genes do.” Despite the science behind it, we don’t know what the next big meme will be until it hits us.

But you can rest assured, whatever it is, it’s on its way…

David Barnett asks what it was about the incident that the internet became so obsessed about A year ago today a gorilla died… Harambe might have meant nothing save to the thousands of people who passed through the zoo’s gates to see him but for the incident on when a three-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla enclosure and fell into the moat separating the primates’ territory from the human visitors. A zoo worker, fearing for the child’s life, shot and killed the gorilla. “Each unit of information, called a meme, undergoes a process of ‘natural selection’ comparable to that of genetic evolution.

People began to employ the name and image of Harambe in quite unexpected ways. There were Photoshopped pictures of Harambe with celebrities. Harambe had become a message, an entity divorced from the reality of the gorilla, a thing that existed and evolved and grew on the internet. Just what is a meme, and what makes one go crazily viral like Harambe?

But the incidents that spark these memes, from the savage murder of children in Manchester to the shooting of a gorilla, are far from funny. “Because we live in a world that is always connected and always online, tragedies that dominate headlines also dominate social media trends and discussions,” says Johnson.

“These kinds of events are important to us, perhaps because we’ve been to pop concerts or have an affinity for certain wildlife, and naturally as more people, who are used to communicating through hashtags and memes, talk about these tragedies, they will use communication methods most familiar to them.

One of the first uses of the internet meme idea arose in 1994, when Mike Godwin, an American attorney and internet law expert, used the word ‘meme’ to characterise the rapid spread of ideas online.” We saw another example of the meme just this week in the wake of the horrific Manchester suicide bombing that claimed 22 lives at the Ariana Grande concert on Monday night.

After the shock, the outrage, the heartbreak, came on Twitter the hashtag #British Threat Levels, in response to the UK Government raising the security status in the wake of the bombing to “critical”.

A split-second decision, to shoot an animal and save a child’s life, became one of 2016’s most talked-about memes. He was a 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla, resident at Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens since 2014, to where he had been transferred from a zoo in Texas where he was born in captivity. Within hours of the incident there was a lot of discussion about animals in captivity, debate about the rights and wrongs of killing Harambe, and an outpouring of grief on social media about the death of an animal. It might be surprising to know that there is actually science behind this, and has been for a long time – for more than 30 years, predating the ubiquity of the internet and social media by a long way. “Memetic theory, or memetics, is a scientific field invented in 1976 [the term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book ] and related to how information evolves and is replicated in human culture and society,” says Shontavia Johnson.

Because it was a tiny artisanal ice cream maker it had meme legs; if it had been a giant international conglomerate rocking up with trucks of ice lollies and their branding everywhere, it would just have been a publicity stunt.

“Things like Harambe and #British Threat Levels work because they have a massive emotional resonance.

And so on and so on.” Johnson is Professor of Law and Kern Family Chair in Intellectual Property Law at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, and has made a study of memetic theory and how it applies to the proliferation of social media in the modern age.

She says: “Today, the internet meme [what most people now just call a meme] is a piece of media that is copied and quickly spread online.

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Why not the two lions who were shot at a zoo in Santiago, Chile, when a man climbed into their enclosure less than a week before the Harambe incident?

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