Friday, November 12, 2010

Spreading your memes

Jason shared this great link from Tech Crunch that gives the basics on "memes", which are today embedded in social media jargon:

But, unlike the other social mediaisms sent up in this drippingly ironic video, "meme" is a term with a prestigious scientific background. While notorious today for raging against God, Richard Dawkins is also known for coining the term, back in 1976.

While writing a quite interesting book on evolutionary biology, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins included a chapter that basically invented the science of memetics:

"I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. [There's a bunch of pedantry here, but he basically ends up with the word "meme" from the Greek root mimeme.]

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `... memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell"

At the time, pop songs and advertising jingles were some of the best examples of new cultural memes. Much older ones were religion,  myth, and urban legend.

And then came the Internet.

Hamster dances, dancing babies, in the early days it was stupid web sites, the dumber the better. But they were able to be passed around faster than the photocopied and faxed dirty jokes of a decade before.

Then came YouTube, and you didn't even need to have minimal development skills to become an Internet celebrity: just a camera, an idea and no shame.

And finally, of course, came the hungry admen. While memes were once the natural result of diverse human ideas competing for attention, they are now memetically engineered by marketers and unleashed on the online environment.

Where they replicate.

And mutate.

 And eventually evolve into something else entirely.
(Warning: it's obviously pretty sexist.)

But ideas never stop spreading and changing. And it's happening way faster than, I'll bet, Dawkins even expected back in the '70s.

Now the online media are glutted with memes. The most successful ones live, and most die a lonely death. But while you are only one of millions and millions of people who are responsible for spreading new memes, you might want to occasionally ask yourself: why did this parasite infect your brain?

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