Mythbusting: Ideas Do Not Spread Because they are Good

I’d like to debunk a myth that has gone on, rampant and unchallenged in marketing circles, especially viral and social marketing, for some time now, but first I feel a few caveats are in order.

First: product quality is important, no amount of marketing will alchemize a bad product into a good one. Second: even the most virulent of viral marketing campaigns can leave a brand or product right where it started. And third: I acknowledge that far too often the term “viral” is thrown around, misunderstood and slathered on like a panacea, but most of the people who do this, also attempt to ruin many other good concepts with psuedo-science and smoke-and-mirrors.

Now the myth: For an idea, piece of content or product to spread or (cringe) “go viral” it has to be a great product. This is WRONG.

When Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in 1976 (over three decades ago and before I was born) he said:

Remember that `survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool.

That book, The Selfish Gene, posited (and largely put the argument to bed) that genes replicate for their own good, not the good of the host. Genes survive and thrive not based on how much value they bring to the creature they inhabit but based on how good they are at replicating, they’re selfish. There are plenty of genes who’s phenotypes produce negative results for their hosts, yet they continue to spread.

The same is true, and perhaps even more obviously, for memes. Auto-toxic memes are harmful to their host, and exo-toxic memes are dangerous to others. The list of virulently “adopted” bad ideas is endless, but here’s a small sample:

  • Blood feuds
  • Terrorism
  • Suicide
  • Drug abuse
  • Antisemitism
  • Pyramid schemes
  • Cults

Daniel Dennett gave a talk on harmful memes at TED in 2002:

So clearly, ideas do not spread based on their “quality” or the “value” they provide, in fact they have an entirely different set of selection criteria, which Francis Heylighen has detailed.

Perhaps finally we can rid ourselves of the admittedly quaint and comforting notion that we only adopt ideas, content and products because of how good and useful they are and start to understand that we adopt them because they are good at getting adopted.

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James May 28, 2008 at 9:43 am

Quite right. See also “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.”

Igor The Troll May 28, 2008 at 10:06 am

Not necessary, like Daniel implied, we can develop Memes aka Germs to Fight other Memes aka Germs.

Virus and Bacteria are important part of Darwinism!

So, someone wants to go “Viral” someone else will go “Anti-Viral” hence Pathogen! Or in simple English Anarchist! Don’t you love a Core Hacker! lol

Douglas Walker May 28, 2008 at 5:31 pm

The problem here is the use of the term “good”. One of my favourite quotes is from Daniel Dennett on this:

The first rule of memes, as it is for genes, is that replication is not necessarily for the good of anything; replicators flourish that are good at … replicating!”

The same misunderstandings that plague evolutionary theory are revisited in viral and memetic theory (but on a much larger scale). Many people think that genes evolve toward a goal instead of simply away from impediments.

Substitute “suited to the environment” instead of “good”, and this will help to explain somethingawful, fark and many other inane memes.

Good stuff, too many people talk about memes who don’t have the first clue about genes or evolution. Memes are a helpful construct mapping the similarities between genetic theory and cultural transmission. I think many people need to re-visit biology 101 before they can hope to understand Web 2.0.

Igor The Troll May 29, 2008 at 12:07 am

Douglas, very well put!

Alexander Zoltai May 29, 2008 at 12:26 pm

So, in my internal think-tank, the actors are now planning to implement ways to make “good” memes have high adoptability…

~ Alex

Dan May 29, 2008 at 12:36 pm

The author provides no causal link between social idea’s and gene’s to make an assumption that idea’s behave in the way gene’s do. A very prominent political economist, Freidreich Hayek, posits that ideas and mores that stand the test of time because they most benefit society, not themselves.

Anonymous May 29, 2008 at 12:52 pm

Blood feuds
Drug abuse
Pyramid schemes

You forgot “Snakes On A Plane”

Scott May 29, 2008 at 1:21 pm

Information is spread via repeaters. That is to say people who repeat information. Just as genes replicate information replicates. Today, the mainstream media has depends on centralized sources that are then repeated all over the world, and the mainstream media has a vested interest in keeping the secrets of the established elite, because the established elite own the mainstream media and/or advertise on the mainstream media and/or permit or deny FCC licenses to the mainstream media. The mainstream media is full of lies, manipulation and propaganda. Our major media system is based on a system that is good at replicating centralized propaganda. My sense is that this article was referring to the alternative media. More truth is to be found in the Alternative media than the mainstream.

As for the author’s references to “adopted bad ideas”…

* Blood feuds …if elitists start a war, the other side needs to fight back. The people who start wars are often elitist with a lot of money. The people blamed are usually poor.
* Terrorism…is an idea and an idea and never be killed. That is why a “war on terrorism” is just an excuse to run up our debt and fatten the wallets of government contractors.
* Suicide… when did this ever catch on in any significant way as a viral idea (stupid example).
* Drug abuse… Define “abuse”. When did this ever catch on in any significant way as a viral idea (stupid example). The idea of a “war on drugs” is another example of a stupid viral idea. “Drugs” can never be defeated. This causes endless war and endless victims of war and endless expenditure on war. No tolerance = no sense!
* Anti-Semitism – About 90% of Jews are not Semitic and the 10% who are Semitic are not the controversial bankers (generally speaking). Oddly, the Palestinians are a Semitic people. What a mind scramble. This is an example of a viral idea put out by the mainstream that is not true but has lodged in the general consciousness and continues to replicate.
* Pyramid schemes – good is relative to point of view. Some benefit from pyramid schemes.
* Cults – saying all cults are bad is like saying all religions are bad. Another bad example.

Matt May 29, 2008 at 1:26 pm

Part of the problem is that “good” is a value judgment. It is subjective, and not absolute. In some societies at some times some of the things you call “bad” were considered good.

Suicide was considered “good” under many circumstances by the Japanese as a way of atoning for mistakes or dying for the Emperor. Antisemitism was considered “good” by the Nazis. Terrorism is viewed as “dying for the cause” or “freedom fighting” by those who practice it.

So since they are considered “good” by some, and generally spread amongst those who consider them so, how does that affect the argument?

irishstu May 29, 2008 at 1:40 pm

@Scott – the idea that suicide is “contagious” is a well-documented idea – have a look into ‘suicide clusters’ if you want to find out more.

RawrBomb May 29, 2008 at 1:46 pm

See: Thomas Kuhn in his influential 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
Also See: Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point

Nicole May 29, 2008 at 3:27 pm

I guess this explains why some blogs are in the Top 100.

Megan May 29, 2008 at 3:34 pm

Scott: You should read “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. He has a whole chapter in there about how suicide ‘caught on’ and has become a sort-of fad on an island that had previously never had a suicide. If people had never heard of it happening before, chances are they never would do it themselves.

As for everything else you had to say, you need to do your research on those comments as well. You really don’t know what you’re talking about. Everything in our society besides our basic instincts have caught on in some way or another, influenced by others, becoming fads or things that stick with us and blend into part of our culture.

It’s a great article!

Megan May 29, 2008 at 3:35 pm

Oops, sorry about the repeat “The Tipping Point” suggestion.

yttrx May 29, 2008 at 3:53 pm

Its always a good idea, when presenting ideas which were conceived by others before you, to toss a few of those people a scrap in memory by way of reference, in this case: Timothy Leary, _Info Psychology_; David Bohm, _Wholeness and the Implicate Order_; Robert Anton Wilson, _Quantum Psychology;, C.G. Jung, _Psychology of the Unconscious; Friedrich Nietzsche, _Geneology of Morals_; and Ezra Pound, _Guide to Kulchur bear mentioning here.

Frank Patrick May 29, 2008 at 3:58 pm

This piece is a big “duh”. I’d be surprised if anyone with half a brain these days thought the quality of an idea had any effect on it’s spreadability. The believers in that myth are probably outnumbered by the believers in Zeus these days.

Doug May 29, 2008 at 5:13 pm

Why is ‘antisemitism’ on there, but not ‘anti-caucasism’ or ‘anti-_____’? Is it not sufficient just to put prejudice in all cases? Why do the Jews get special treatment, and that anti-Jew in particular is considered worse than say, Jewish hostility towards Europeans, or Jewish hostility towards Palestinians?

Sparky May 29, 2008 at 5:25 pm

Just look at Windows and Microsoft products. They’re not good ideas, but they market them so much that people buy them. Great article!

gregory May 30, 2008 at 7:48 am

a good move towards deeper reality

we use “meme” because we don’t have a word for the livingness of what we call ideas, but they are actually elements of consciousness, we don’t have them, they have us …

which means ipr is built on a shallow reality meme, among other

Oran Kelley June 3, 2008 at 1:18 pm

Here’s another myth for you to bust: memes.

There’s no such thing.

Essentially, anyone who uses this word is announcing “I am intellectually lazy and am simply not up to the task of trying to explain human behavior.”

This is fine, but just don’t pretend otherwise. It’s not as if no one has ever come up with explanations for things like
* Blood feuds
* Terrorism
* Suicide
* Drug abuse
* Antisemitism
* Pyramid schemes
* Cults
A lot of anthropology is dedicated to illuminating practices like these.

But of course, they are actually the result of the activity of some mythical entity. Might as well just say the gods did it.

At least that explanation doesn’t pretend to be rational.

Dan Zarrella June 3, 2008 at 2:45 pm

“Here’s another myth for you to bust: memes. There’s no such thing.”

Really? And intellectually lazy? Memes are certainly not some “mythical entity” but a unit that has been studied by many intellectually rigorous scientists, Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett to name a few.

jdonnovan June 10, 2008 at 11:59 am

I have been saying this all along, but everyone, especially these days, thinks that their ideas being great is all that matters when in reality the greatness could be in the form of promotion. Oh and I love the mythbusters!

Matt June 12, 2008 at 3:02 pm

So I think whoever believes the myth that this article debunks needs to go pray for a better mind. Any amount of exposure to popular media should clue you in that an idea does not have to be good in order to spread.
This whole article is one big fallacy. It is begging the question from the start. His premise is that ideas don’t have to be good to be accepted. SO, these ideas are bad, they are accepted, so they are bad. You did nothing to prove your point beyond the common sense of your premise. Maybe next time find something original to say and then try to support it. Stop attempting to rip off other people’s ideas (and failing miserably I might add).

Wes October 23, 2008 at 8:27 pm

I’ll go ahead and stand up for Oran there. Memes, in the end, cannot survive without the human actors who perpetuate them. While it is an interesting idea, and can be useful to explain some specific situations, not all cultural practices can be considered ‘memetic’. As well, a simple test for these memes would be to say, ‘if they are so good at replicating themselves, why are they not embraced by every person on earth?’ Obviously, blood feuds and terrorism will hit a brick wall sooner or later as the meme will perpetuate itself into oblivion, but where is the check on something like anti-semitism? or religion? both of these have been posited as self-replicating memes, but if they are so powerful, why am both an atheist and a lover of the semitic races? The reason is because human beings, as sometimes logical actors, are not slaves to their actions or to their culture. They, to quote a phrase, live in webs of significance that they themselves, create.

Phil Baumann October 23, 2008 at 8:58 pm

This is spot on with respect to the success of meme via the stepwise process of selective pressures.

I don’t know how far enough memetics has gone toward explaining everything about consciousness, but the analogy of ideas to memes works sufficiently well in understanding the transmission, or infectivity, of ideas from host to host.

Memes, like any replicator, need media to grow in and be transmitted through. It’s very easy for the wrong ideas to spread through the right kind of media and into all sorts of brains.

How this specifically relates to ‘viral marketing’ depends on the marketer and the marketed.

So to whom is this thesis, which I believe is correct, worth more? The viral marketer or the target market?

tonyd October 23, 2008 at 9:24 pm

As good as Ted is I really hate that they have a pre-roll commercial for themselves. we get it. ted is good, except when they are telling us so.

cyb October 24, 2008 at 1:30 am

The only purpose of the word “anti-semitism” is that it is a smear word.

Most socalled jews aren’t even descended from Shem (Shemites/Semites), the second of Noah’s three sons so the word anti-semite doesn’t even make sense.

Ben October 24, 2008 at 2:52 am

That’s just what the memes want you to think!

Stephan October 24, 2008 at 4:40 am

in support of Douglas Walker’s comment,
I would expand your argument against the naive use of the term ‘good’ in this article. There is no such thing as good in an objective sense (whatever that may mean). By using and presupposing the notion of ‘good’ in your article you are unintentionally creating the myth you are trying to ‘bust’.

Just refrain from applying this concept of ‘good’. Using it mearly creates a sentence that *looks* like a meaningfull statement, e.g. compare: “Mythbusting: Ideas Do Not Spread Because they are Blue”.

For further reading e.g.:
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse
Note: do not read the translated version, just learn another language you might actually learn something in the process ;-)

Steve October 24, 2008 at 8:08 am

Very interesting book about this is : “the purple cow” , by Seth Godin.

John Savage October 24, 2008 at 8:35 am

Wow, I truly love the MythBusters. Especialyl that cute red head!

sam October 24, 2008 at 1:26 pm

If anyone has jumped straight to the comments, congratulations, you win! Protip: skip the entire pretentious and annoying article and read this one useful paraphrased sentence:

we should rid ourselves of the notion that we only adopt ideas, content and products because of how good and useful they are. we instead adopt them because they are good at getting adopted.

nanreh October 24, 2008 at 5:59 pm

nice post. i disagree with the idea that drug abuse/addiction happens because it’s a successful meme. there’s a physiological component to that one that’s absent from all of your other examples.

David G. October 25, 2008 at 11:00 am

This article was not very well written in my opinion. It makes too many leaps for the reader. Assumptions on memes and their meanings, leaves some readers wondering “what you are talking about.”
However, you didn’t add Communism to your list of bad ideas that keep going and going and going…like the energizer bunny. October 26, 2008 at 6:03 am

Excellent – very well put indeed

Stuart Foster November 19, 2008 at 10:13 am

Excellent points Dan. I often come up against ideas and content that is not necessarily the best…but is promoted by the best. It is an interesting juxtaposition within social media and one that will continue to grow as more and more marketers (who aren’t necessarily great writers/content producers) enter the content arena.

Site O Rific January 15, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Anyone fascinated by the idea of a Meme or propagation of ideas may want to check out Spiral Dynamics and Don Becks research and implementation of memetic deep structures. Also Ken Wilber’s AQAL model of human development.

Carl Ingalls April 2, 2009 at 8:33 pm

Thank you for writing an article that stirred people up so well. You made them think. That is so much more important than trying to make them believe. Mission accomplished!

I’ve been doing amateur research on how “memes” propagate through Twitter via the retweet mechanism. Very simple measurements. Initial results are fascinating. Something very unusual going on there. Does not follow the standard model. Might be fun to discuss on Twitter. I just started following you. I’m Carl_Ingalls there.

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