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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{ 12 comments }

shawn smith March 31, 2008 at 9:27 am

One of the best explanations I have ever read on what constitutes a meme and how to understand it. Thanks! I’m really interested in how memes actually get started. Such as, who was the first person to rickroll and how did that spread. Would love to see tracking on that.

bipolar2 April 2, 2008 at 1:25 pm

** marketing kills meaning **

Once words like “meme” and “paradigm” and worse, “virus” get into the hands of marketers, the end of their meaningfulness has almost arrived. Last of course are politicians who always need metaphors to cover their malfeasance.

Dawkins, unfortunately, pushes the “gene : meme” analogy beyond credibility. To be brief: evolution is guided by natural selection (darwinian evolution); conceptual change is guided by lamarkian “evolution.”

Personally, I was saddened to see that the great mythology of Sumer had at last descended among swine. As another mythological construct supposedly said, “Do not cast your pearls before swine.”

And “me” is pronounced “may.” And, how many me in the average me containing meme? When is meme A = meme B?

If wide distribution and use of “meme” (like “paradigm”) makes the term more likely to enter the rubbish bin of language, that would be excellent. “Meme” is really me-aningless.

bipolar2
copyright asserted 2008

Dan Zarrella April 3, 2008 at 10:24 am

@bipolar swine? scathing!

but seriously, i agree, many marketers misuse terms that originate in science and culture, i don’t think that means marketing kills meaning inherently, and i’m working to bring back real science into marketing.

to paraphrase Susan Blackmore the question of the lamarkian nature of memetic evolution is best left un-asked because it pre-supposes a direct biology-culture congruence which does not exist.

the exact unit of a meme is also an irrelevant question, what is the exact unit of a gene?

Igor The Troll April 3, 2008 at 10:31 pm

Here is a MeMe, join MyBlog and spread the Gospel.

It works really well. Followers can follow your teachings to the Tee. Once you join the community you can see when new posts, comments, and other social media actions are performed.

Having everything syndicated under one social network aggregation platform allows you total control and helps you be the Urban legend in charge of your Army.

http://www.mybloglog.com/buzz/community/igorthetroll/

David Kippen January 13, 2009 at 1:40 am

Interesting, but I’d suggest reconsidering the title concept of memetics. While it suggests the study of memes and is a handy tie-in to genetics, from which you (and Dawkins) derive the metaphor, it’s unfortunately very close to mimetics, or the study of the representation of reality through art. While you have the origins of “me” as a blueprint for a tulpa reaching back to Sumaria, the origins of mimesis are found in Plato’s critiques of art and craft (remember his Socratic dialogue, I think it was with Glaucon in The Republic, of the bridle maker and the painting of the bridle?). And, more importantly, this concept is at the heart of Aristotle’s Poetics, one of the more important works of the most important thinker of antiquity.

Site O Rific January 15, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Clare Graves did far more research into this area of study (specifically- value memes or vMemes) than Dawkins, who recently seems to regret he even brought up the idea, as if he came up with it, what an ego! Don Beck and Christopher Cowen carried on Clare Graves research and now call it Spiral dynamics. There is a deep structure that explains why a bad idea to one person may seem like a good idea to another. Your purely superficial clinical explanation– although very well done– lacks depth and perspective, much like Dawkins work. I guess you are propagating the purely “ITS” perspective on “WE” space?

Prada Sunglasses September 23, 2009 at 7:05 pm

Good stuff.

Smack MacDougal December 12, 2009 at 3:36 am

No such things as memes exist. Only the easily suckered have accepted the false belief about memes.

Richard Dawkins coined the word 'meme' to push his atheist agenda. As the ever vigilant atheist, Dawkins sought a way to apply the principles of descent with modification to other things besides new species formation.

Here's the gist of a meme from the Dawkins/Blackmore agenda: An idea wants to survive, so it replicates and crowds out other ideas. If the idea is superior, it shall be fit enough to crowd out other ideas.

Of course, how silly this false belief about memes is. Ideas aren't alive. Imbuing them with human characteristics is silly.

Only humans can act. Ideas are not alive. Ideas cannot act.

In truth, in human nature, some seek competitive advantage. Thus, they memorize important things, which they pass along to others or they share with others as part of ritual to ingratiate themselves deeper into a group.

Smack MacDougal December 12, 2009 at 11:36 am

No such things as memes exist. Only the easily suckered have accepted the false belief about memes.

Richard Dawkins coined the word 'meme' to push his atheist agenda. As the ever vigilant atheist, Dawkins sought a way to apply the principles of descent with modification to other things besides new species formation.

Here's the gist of a meme from the Dawkins/Blackmore agenda: An idea wants to survive, so it replicates and crowds out other ideas. If the idea is superior, it shall be fit enough to crowd out other ideas.

Of course, how silly this false belief about memes is. Ideas aren't alive. Imbuing them with human characteristics is silly.

Only humans can act. Ideas are not alive. Ideas cannot act.

In truth, in human nature, some seek competitive advantage. Thus, they memorize important things, which they pass along to others or they share with others as part of ritual to ingratiate themselves deeper into a group.

memeweaving December 31, 2009 at 2:45 am

Memes do exist. Only the self-deluded refuse to accept the reality of memetics.

Richard Dawkins coined the word 'meme' because he saw that the principles of natural selection (which have no bearing whatsoever on whether God exists) could be usefully applied to the way cultural information appears to spread from human to human.

Here's the gist of human determination from the anti-memetics camps: humans “have thoughts” that they “come up with” all on their own, without influence from any of their peers or reading books or anything. Some people are magic and can transfer thoughts and beliefs directly into other people's heads; these people are therefore superior and fit enough to crowd out other people.

Of course, how silly this meme about human determination is. Humans aren't capable of self-replication as pure data (not yet, anyway). Imbuing them with the characteristics of viral thoughts is silly.

Only memes can spread. Humans are information processors, not information itself. Humans cannot spread from brain to brain.

In truth, in the information ecology, memes seek competitive advantage. Thus, they demonstrate their importance [or sexiness or cuteness or coolness or...] to their hosts, and their hosts pass them along to more hosts.

James May 10, 2010 at 9:11 pm

Good article, there's some stuff i haven't come across before and i thought the internet memes part was quite entertaining.
Starwars kid is now my favourite youtube video :P

Cheers

Compare Credit Cards September 29, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Hey, great articles. Thanks a lot for sharing

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