A bit of a do about a dude’s do AKA why “meme” misses the point about memes

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Many of you might have been distracted by the recent brouhaha in and around London but there's been some interesting discussion around memes on the interwebs recently

With NASA's Mars Curiosity Landing this fella, Bobak Ferdowsi – lead on the activity team at NASA – became a meme.

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Partly on account of his "do" and partly…well, make up your own interpretations (as this nice lady does here). 

Of course, there were lots of internet memes which started during the Olympics, my favourite being the funny diving faces…

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And of course my tip for the top in Autumn/Winter fashion, the Wiggo Sidie (Tour de France Winner and Olympic champion, Bradley Wiggins sports a fine and distinctive set of ginger sidies here)

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which generated a host of real world echoes from Sir Steve Redgrave

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To these nice chaps at the cricket (albeit before the Olympics)

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And now I learn Daniele, Nick and Graham will be running a marathon in September dressed the same way…maybe using the Mirror newspaper's downloadable stick on sidies….? Download Bradley

OK so my point is this: we all find it very easy and appealing to explain the spread of such things after the fact but most of the time we do it with reference to the thing and its specific characteristics rather than the mechanics which cause it to spread. 

Indeed this is at the heart of the idea of memetics: a meme is

"information that is copied, varied and selected – but the term is usually reserved for those that hit the big time, or "go viral" [Susan Blackmore cited in the Guardian]

The term "selected" here is important – it derives from evolutionary science (memetics being itself an attempt to apply the broad principles of evolution to cultural phenomena). "Selected" infers that there is something specific (and perhaps superior) about the thing/species and its relevance to its environment which explains its success. 

Our discussion of the kind of thing we call "memes" is unfortunately also dominationed by this kind of focus on the thing (the "information"), it's unique characteristics and what its spread reveals about our culture or how people feel (as the Do-dude piece demonstrates:)

"Ultimately, memes spread because on some level, they resonate with their audience" 

While it may make very good Op-Eds and very interesting intellectual showponying, scientifically it is plain nonsense. In biological evolution and in the cultural space, things spread fundamentally because of the copying activity, mostly not because there's anything particularly important or significant about them. It's the mechanic not the thing. 

Of course, it's easy – looking backward with the benefit of hindsight and with reference to the thing and the culture, why that particular thing of all the things that might have spread did spread. But it's really hard to tell ahead of time (which is the important place to start from if you want to make your ponderings useful. 

As the great evolutionist Steven Jay Gould observed, re-winding the tape of evolution will more often than not lead to different outcomes from the one we find – we humans might well not have got so successful.

So whilst spotting the things that "go viral" (and post-rationalising why) is an interesting and diverting pass time, can we try to ask some more important questions, please? Ones less about the thing? 

Like what kind of network did this spread through? What kind of copying is it – what we call directed (focussed on authority or expertise) or undirected

And ditch the "What made the Nasa Mohawk guy such a successful meme", please?

It's not him, it's not it, it's the copiers and the copying that matters.

 

2 Comments

  1. Graemewood
    August 14, 2012

    Definitely – but isn’t the post-rationalising as inherent in society as the copying? We’re post-rationalising animals, not rational ones. Having been sat just out of shot at The Oval behind the four Wiggo dudes, i’d love to know whether the sideburns meme would have spread without Sky and TMS featuring it the week before the Olympics. Even though it’s not the point!

  2. Mark Earls
    August 16, 2012

    Absolutely – and I was the other side of Wiggo-blokes.