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Public editor: You may know Grumpy Cat, but can you explain what a meme is?

Grumpy Cat

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So far this year, The Globe and Mail has referenced "memes" more than a dozen times. The stories have included references to memes – the funny, edited video clips – about Ryan Gosling and cereal, the frowning feline known as Grumpy Cat, and the Harlem Shake, the dance routine that became an Internet sensation.

It's a reasonably new concept and not all readers have heard of it or could describe what it means. So at what point should reporters take a moment to explain the word? It's a good question raised by a reader referring to the Ryan Gosling piece. "As there was no explanation, it seems that it must be a fairly common word, but I do not think it is. I looked it up and am still not sure what it means – some sort of idea that gathers a following online… I bet your writers are way more Internet aware than the majority of your readers, clearly more than me."

Generally, a news article should make a concept clear to readers and when in doubt, a few descriptive words would be helpful. Most of the references to memes were in the Life section. Arts and Life editor Gabe Gonda noted that he Googled "meme" as a starting point in thinking about this subject and it turned up 852 million hits. "That doesn't mean everyone shouldn't have heard of the concept, but it might give you a sense of how widespread the term is," he says.

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"It's far from a niche idea, but pretty central to how our culture operates today. As a reader, I've never minded having to go to a dictionary, or Google, to search for something that I haven't heard. To me it's a pleasure to discover that I don't know something, have my curiosity activated and then satisfied. That's as true for an obscure reference in a Robert Harris opera review as it would be in a millennial's take on a viral web phenomenon."

The memes referenced here have been videos, altered or edited for fun, but dictionary.com also says meme refers to "An element of a culture or behaviour that may be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, esp. imitation."

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this. How much do newspapers and websites need to explain to readers and when can you expect a subject or word to be well known?

On another subject, the wildly popular and very internet-savvy Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield landed back on Earth Monday night, just after the Leafs-Bruins hockey game ended. While The Globe ran an editorial praising Commander Hadfield's scientific, teaching and cultural successes, and an Arts article on his Space Oddity cover, there was no news mention of his safe return. It was online last night, but was missed in the paper in the rush of night production. The editor recognizes there should have been a reference. Here's a link to the video of his (odd) return to a field in Kazakhstan.

If you have views on what should be explained or covered in more detail, please send me an email at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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