Saw this (above) lovely piece of detective work today on Buzzfeed (they picked it from giagantor who picked it up from…) about – well, let's call it the "Keep Calm Meme" (if your not a Brit or connected to Brits you might have to go check the links now to explain it. Good. Welcome back).
What the visuals (plus the comments on on the Buzzfeed page) seem to show is the history of how one little known WWII poster design spread and evolved over a short period of time (I've got a t-shirtGod, even my Dad has a mug with it on). Brilliant. Like the map of a "meme", it's suggested.
But…but, but, but…!
It's very easy to imagine that it must be something about the original design or the concept or the style of illustration that made it spread so wide (we talk of Stickiness in Marketingland or Fitness if we've got our evolutionary hat on) – something about the Keep Calm line that has an abiding appeal, something that plays to our nostalgic sense of duty or whatever. Or maybe something just plain different.
Unfortunately, this isn't a good default setting/working assumption: more often than not with the stuff of popular culture, the thing itself isn't that important in determining how far (or not) something spreads. On the one hand, most of our choices aren't that different from each other – it doesn't really matter which one we choose – and on the other hand, focussing on the successful item distracts us from the absence of the ones which didn't make it (which will often turn out to be indistinguishable from the winner). It turns out that many successful "memes" have only one characteristic that their unsuccessful competitors didn't have: luck…!
This has much broader applications than reading popular culture or a market's history. Looking back, we're all too ready to look to the thing to explain how something spreads and – following the 7 Lesssons of Successful People syndrome – use it as a template for success. Or an unhelpful straightjacket…when all the time it may just be chance that creates success.
Indeed, one of the things, I'm working on right now is a simple way to tell the difference between something that has chance and luck to thank for its success and something which has something about itself to thank.
So next time you see something that's become popular – something that seems to fall into this "meme" category of items – why don't you try calling it "something that turns out to have been successful but might just be lucky but we don't know either way yet"?
PS What's your fave "Don't Panic"? I'm with Matt Jones' "Get Excited…". You?