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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