Memetics Explained

What is the first thing that springs to your mind whenever the word meme is mentioned? Perhaps if you’re a social media user, you will automatically think of pictures that regularly do the rounds, such as Grumpy Cat or Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, with custom quotes added to them. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a meme as an image…typically humorous in nature…that is copied and spread by Internet users with slight variations. But did you know that memes actually predate the Internet?

The term memetics was first described by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He presented a theory that described how cultural information passes from person to person and how it evolves along the way.

Dawkins’ belief was that through the act of imitation, memes are passed to the imitator in much the same way that eye or hair colour are passed on to children via their parents. The theory of memetics borrows from Darwin’s theory of evolution. In much the same way as genes do, memes compete with one another, reproduce and evolve. They compete amongst themselves for prominence in human thoughts and behavioural patterns.

While Dawkins himself has always refused to define the term in a strict sense, he has suggested that tunes, catchphrases and clothing fashions could all be considered as memes. Other scientists have pointed to catchy phrases, music jingles or a type of behaviour.

Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett produced one of the most common examples of memes with his spoked wheel meme. In it, he described the image of a wagon with spoked wheels carrying grain or some other cargo from one place to the next. He emphasized that not only did it carry its cargo, but that it also carried with it the very idea of a spoke-wheeled wagon transporting cargo.

Whomsoever saw the first spoked wheel would seek to emulate it, another person would see the second wagon and seek to replicate it too, resulting in hundreds of spoke-wheeled wagons being produced over time.

The memes with which we are most familiar first emerged in 1990, when Mike Godwin, an attorney and internet law expert from the

USA, used the word to describe an idea which is rapidly spread. He had observed, in viral communities of the time such as Usenet groups, that users who made unpopular comments were compared unfavourably to the Nazis and Adolf Hitler.

This would happen time and time again, resulting in the emergence of Godwin’s law, an internet adage which asserts that the longer a conversation lasts, the probability of an unfavourable comparison with Hitler and the Nazis increases.

As the Internet age has grown, the use of social media has increased exponentially. It is estimated that, on average, people in the USA spend eleven hours a day using digital media, Australians spend ten hours a day and Latin Americans spend more than twelve hours on Internet-connected devices and media outlets. During all this time, thousands of photos, videos and other forms of media are exchanged.

It is important to note that the scientific meme and the internet meme differ quite substantially. An internet meme is deliberately created and manipulated by users whereas the scientific meme relates more to gradual changes and accurate copying. Internet memes can be traced and identified through their physical manifestations whereas scientific memes have no physical appearance and leave no mark, thus rendering them untraceable. Nonetheless, Professor Dawkins has stated his belief that the two are closely related.

In attempting to determine what makes certain memes successful and others not so much, researchers state that memes must develop so-called “Good Tricks” in order gain competitive advantages. These tricks include being genuinely useful, being easily imitated and answering questions of interest.

If we return to Dennett’s spoked-wheel example, we see that it corresponds to all three tricks listed above. A wheel is a key component of any moving vehicle, it is not especially difficult to replicate and it allows human society to advance. Another example of the second, easily imitated trick is a catchy tune. Take, for instance, the opening “stomp, stomp, clap” beat of the Queen song We Will Rock You. It is much more recognisable and easier to imitate than, say, Pink Floyd’s “Money”. Lastly, the “answering questions of interest” meme can be

seen in just about any bookshop or library. Consider how many books have been written attempting to answer questions like what is the meaning of life, where are we going as a species and how do I lose weight? Through the numerous volumes dedicated to them, these topics can be considered memes.

One Internet meme that ticks all the “Good Tricks” boxes is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from 2014. In less than three weeks, over three million people both mentioned and shared related hashtags and videos. Eventually, the challenge raised over $100,000,000 to fund research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

The challenge fits the “Good Tricks” criteria thus: it was genuinely useful in that it raised an enormous amount of money for research into a debilitating illness, it was easily imitated in the sense that it consisted only of pledging donations, nominating friends and family to take the challenge, pouring a bucket of ice-cold water over one’s head and uploading the footage on YouTube and finally it answered several questions of interest. First, can ordinary people make a true difference, second, can anything be done in earnest to look for a cure for a serious illness and third, does people power matter?

Both were answered when, thanks in part to donations raised through the challenge, the University of Massachusetts Medical School identified a third gene that is linked to the cause of the disease and Project MinE, a global effort to identify genetic roots of ALS, was able to considerably expand their research. Memetics suggest there is considerable good to be attained from pairing a strong meme (to use Dawkins’ original quotation) with other content including digital.

Further details on NLP training courses & Memes in related mind science subjects can be viewed on this page here.

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