Introduction to Memetics: What is a Meme?

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Enki, Keeper of Me

In ancient Sumerian mythology the god Enlil organized a list of divine laws or Me which eventually found their way into human hands. The Me were a set of rules and regulations detailing every part of the Sumerian culture. The author of the poem “Inanna and Enki” broke his entire civilization down to one hundred instructions, covering ideas like politics, religion, social instruments, arts and crafts, music, intellectual, emotional and social behavior patterns. Not all of the Me were beneficial to the people they ruled, since the Sumerians had good and bad gods and they had good and bad commands. In the poem the Me were described as having physical forms that were stolen from the god Enki by his granddaughter Inanna and brought to man.

In the book Snow Crash Neal Stephenson popularize the story of Sumerian Mes by describing a malicious industrialist with a world-domination plan involving Nam-Shubs, ancient mind viruses that caused their victims to experience glossolalia or speaking in toungues.

Tibetan mysticism contains an idea called a Tulpa, which is the physical manifestation of a thought, idea or prayer. Whereas a Me is a blueprint for constructing something, that “thing” that is created may be called a Tulpa.

Richard Dawkins defined “meme” as a “unit of cultural inheritance“. These are ideas that spread from person to person, ideas like jokes, fashion trends, urban legends, folk sayings and gossip. When the first person discovered how to make fire the idea spread from person to person until the entirety of human civilization was “infected” with the meme and knew how to make fire. Dawkins based the word meme on the Greek word “mimeme” but its similarity to Sumerian Me is unmistakeable.

Dawkins’ 1976 book, The Selfish Gene coined the term “meme” and sparked modern interest in an evolutionary reincarnation of a concept similar to the Sumerian Me, the field of memetics. Meme theory is perhaps best explored in the book Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore, in it she asserts that memes replicate and spread by way of imitation, but she made an important distinction between replication where the final product or behavior is imitated, and where the instructions are copied. To use the Sumerian example, if you have a Me that tells you how to weave a basket, in the later it is the Me itself, that is replicated and spreads between people, not the Tulpa basket, and in the former you see the basket and you decide to make your own just like it. Dawkins and Blackmore both postulate that humans are the only animal that learns by imitation and that this is the primary mechanism by which memes spread, explaining why humans seem to be the only animal vulnerable to mind viruses. Later research has cast this theory in a dubious light, as other animals including birds and primates also learn by imitation and may also be memetic vectors.

In the marketing world we speak of ideas “going viral” and our key metaphor for memes are viruses, infecting a host and then being transmitted to others. From this concept research (pdf) has been done into the reproduction rates of various memes, that is the average number of new people infected by each person who “catches” the virus. If a Meme has a reproduction rate under one, the growth of the virus will eventually stop, if it is over or equal to one it will continue to spread indefinitely (or at least until some outside factor reduces it’s reproduction rate).

A key point with memes (and indeed biological viruses) is that they are “motivated” like genes are. Those memes that survive and grow do not do so because of the value they provide to their hosts, but because they are good at replicating and spreading. This is the “selfish meme” concept, just like the Sumerians had good and bad Me, we have good and bad memes. History is replete with examples of bad ideas, detrimental to those who internalized them, that spread like wildfire, so when we are looking to judge an idea’s potential virality we should largely ignore the value the idea bestows upon its host organisms.

Earworm Discussion

I asked the question “What is your worst/best earworm?” on twitter and got some great responses, check out my favorites to see.

To be successful a meme must posses two traits, longevity and fecundity. Longevity is the ability of the meme to force it’s host brain to retain it for a period of time, ideas that are easily forgotten do not spread very far. Earworms are simple musical tunes that get stuck in your head because they become trapped in your phonological loop, an auditory memory bank. Fecundity is the ability of a meme to reproduce, there must be some element of the idea that commands it’s host to express it in a contagious fashion. When you start humming that song you have stuck in your head the earworm is being given a chance to lodge itself in the mind of everyone within earshot. I’ve written before, in more depth, about the criteria needed for memetic success, and about the way memes force retention in the human brain.

Online memes come in many forms, from viral videos like the Starwars kid and email chain letters to entire content “genres” like lolcats. Rickrolling is an example of a meme that is not only a piece of content, but a behavioral pattern, here the idea is not just to spread the video, but to trick people into watching it when they thought they were clicking on a relevant link. The instructions replicate, not just the final product. Typically online, we see mostly memes where the Me is copied, you see a page and you send the link to your friends, but in cases like Lolcats and Rickrolling, is often the other type of “Tulpa” replication, where you see the behavior and imitate that.

In the blogosphere the definition of “meme” has taken on a sort of sub-meaning, where it is a list of questions that one blogger answers and then asks other’s to answer in posts as well. Often each blogger will “tag” more people to participate and the meme will spread from blog to blog. The viral roots of this meaning are clear to see.

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The Science, History and How to of Contagious Laughter

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Laughter is that involuntary response humans of all cultures share, and while we may think of it as a reaction to humor (the funnier we find something, the more we laugh at it, goes the common wisdom), devoid of any other qualification it is a complex (and virulently contagious) social phenomenon. In this post I study the science of social laughter, the history of epidemics of contagious laughter and I’ll detail how to get started creating your own outbreaks.

A small observational study done by Robert Provine in 2000 showed that humor has little to do with laughter, rather it is our social setting that influences our giggles:

Only 10% to 20% of the laughter episodes we witnessed followed anything joke-like. Even the most humorous of the 1,200 comments that preceded laughter weren’t necessarily howlers: “You don’t have to drink, just buy us drinks!” and “Was that before or after I took my clothes off?.” being two of my favorites. This suggests that the critical stimulus for laughter is another person, not a joke…

After excluding the vicarious social effects of media (television, radio, books, etc.), its social nature was striking: Laughter was 30 times more frequent in social than solitary situations. The students were much more likely to talk to themselves or even smile when alone than to laugh. However happy we may feel, laughter is a signal we send to others and it virtually disappears when we lack an audience.

Notice that Provine had to specifically exclude “the vicarious social effects of media“. The only time people laugh alone normally is when they are reading, watching TV or listening to the radio, these are simulated social situations. The effect is more pronounced with the internet because it is actual social interaction rather than one way communication. We laugh to communicate with others.

The Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic

Another curious feature of the social nature of laughter is its contagiousness. In 1962 a small town in what is now Tanzania fell victim to a spate of contagious laughing called the “Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic“. A few weeks after the nation gained its independence three teenage girls in a boarding school in the isolated village began laughing and it spread to the whole town. According to a 1963 report, a total of 10,000 adult men and women and teens of both sexes caught the “disease” after coming in contact with an infected person.

The event is known as case of mass psychogenic illness and the modern explanations revolve around intense religious and cultural changes that were happening to the town at the time due to its new-found independence and the replacement of old spiritual beliefs with western religion. The laughter acted as a collective catharsis.

Holy Laughter

Another example of mass epidemics of laughter is the “holy laughter” phenomenon in the Charismatic Christian movement. An article adapted from an 1995 report by Albert James Dager, describes it such:

Many churches are reporting spontaneous, uncontrollable laughter erupting from their congregations, even during times of solemn ceremony or messages from the pulpit.

The article traces the beginning of the modern outbreak to April of 1989 when Rodney Morgan Howard-Browne was preaching near Albany. Word of the laughing epidemics spread and he became well known as his services were broadcast on the radio. Another preacher, Randy Clark, experienced Howard-Browne’s holy laughter and brought it to a small church in Toronto where talk of the almost daily meetings turned it into a “mecca of sorts” by 1994. Holy laughter spread like a textbook meme, or idea virus.

The article also mentions Jonathan Edwards from the 1730’s thoughts on an earlier version of the outbreaks at his revivals:

One who is convicted of sin might well laugh or cry after he has felt release from the condemnation and control of sin, which comes with confession and repentance.

Contagious Laughter

Laughter can be a perfectly symmetrical meme in that the mere sound of laughter is capable of infecting and inducing others to laugh themselves, creating the snowball effect of the most successful viral ideas, here’s a video demonstrating this:

The power of contagious laughter is well-known by TV sitcom producers who have included recorded “laugh tracks” in most shows since 1950, the sound of other people laughing makes you laugh.

This, perhaps, then is the reason things that make us laugh “go viral” so often. By its very nature laughing is a cathartic social action, and it spreads virulently through communities, both online and off. Evidence has shown that chimpanzees laugh (and maybe even rats) so we known that the behavior is hard-wired into our brains by millions of years of evolution. Laughter is one of the most primal and powerful social contagions.

How to Engineer your own Outbreak of Contagious Laughter

As we’ve seen from the above examples, contagious laughter is usually a social catharsis from a stressful situation, so given any such setting we should be able to create our own epidemic of laughing. The Tanzanians were undergoing intense and rapid cultural and social changes, holy laughter happens when people feel relief from what they perceive as their own sinful nature and the three guys on stage with the comedian looked pretty nervous. Laughter is the release of social tension.

So the next time you find yourself in a tense meeting at work, a test or quiz in class, or a particularly technical or boring session at a conference give it a try. Start laughing, maybe quiet at first or even mimic that southern dude’s laugh in the video above. Remember it doesn’t have to be in response to a joke or anything funny, you just need tension and a group of people. Make sure that the other people can see (or at least hear you) laughing. In the video example the epidemic really took off when the comedian put the mic in front of the laughing guy and let the audience hear it for themselves.

The less people want to laugh, the more they try to fight it, the more tension they’ll be creating and the more contagious the laughter will become. Also remember some people (and especially the presenter or the teacher) won’t appreciate the outbreak of giggling and they definitely won’t like it if they know you’re doing it on purpose so try this at your own risk.

The science of engineering contagious laughter is a new field, so experiment with it. Try different types of laughs, giggles, and chuckles. Try different situations and types of tensions. Make sure you report back the results of your tests, and maybe even try to get audio and video to share with the rest of us.

Someone in the comments just reminded me about Laughter Yoga, so I would remiss not to include this video example:

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