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.