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Selfish Memes

2012 March 18

LOL cats, Justin Bieber, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  We love our memes.  We repeat them, tweet them and watch them go viral on YouTube.  There’s so much useless chatter about memes, we often forget that they’re profoundly important.

The US constitution is a meme, as is celibacy in priests and the concept suicide bombing.  These might not be as cute, but they are memes nonetheless and they are serious business.
Just as genes are the elemental unit of biological fitness, memes are the building blocks of cultural fitness.  Some, like bell-bottom jeans and prohibition, have their day and then die out.  Others, like kosher diet restrictions and democracy last for millennia. People will die for them.  To understand why, we need to start thinking more seriously about memes.

The Meme as a Meme Problem

The concept of a meme and a viral chain are often confused.  Just because an idea goes viral, doesn’t mean that it is successful.  Simply being past along doesn’t achieve anything. Just as an Ebola outbreak will spread wildly and then die out just as quickly, useless memes can travel fast but make little global impact.

Unfortunately, we spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about memes that happen to go viral rather than memes that are actually important – the ones that affect our lives – which leads to some rather slack thinking about memes.

For example, look at this short TED video (about 7 minutes) from Kevin Allocca, who follows trends for YouTube.


He presents videos that got truly amazing amounts of views and then notes three common characteristics:

Tastemakers:  Each video had a dormant period until it was promoted by a popular figure (a variation on the influentials myth).

Communities of Participation: The videos gathered a following who then passed it along.

Unexpectedness:  He noted that each video had something truly “unique and unexpected.”

I don’t want to single out Mr. Allocca, because these types of post-hoc explanations are quite common, but his advice basically amounts to “make something you think is really cool and get it picked up by Jimmy Kimmel.”  If virality is contingent on mass media, what are we wasting our time with it for?

Another problem with the memes he highlights is the lack of directed intent.  They seem like lottery winners more than the work of master content marketers (a fact that even Mr. Allocca alluded to). Randomness and luck are part of the human condition, no doubt, but they are not a strategy.  We need to do better.

Dawkins’ Selfish Genes

Probably the best place to start to think seriously about memes is the beginning, Richard Dawkins’ classic The Selfish Gene in which he coined the term.  The book walks us through a “gene’s eye view” and looks at evolution from the perspective of the gene itself.  Central to his view is that we imagine genes to be “selfish.”

It wasn’t that he actually thought that genes had feelings, but used the term as a device to illustrate the concept of inclusive fitness, the idea that a trait will survive even if it can be sometimes detrimental to the organism.

For example, sickle cell anemia is a debilitating disease in one form, yet in another is relatively harmless (except at high altitudes) and confers resistance to malaria.  From a selfish gene’s perspective, that’s a good bet for a population which inhabits a region where malaria is a problem and mountains aren’t.

To a selfish gene, the body which carries it is merely a vehicle.  It’s real mission is its own replication.  It wants to get copied.

Meme- Gene Interactions

It was the concept of selfish genes that led directly to the meme concept.  Just as genes are the basic unit of biological fitness, memes are the basic unit of cultural fitness.  The two concepts are very much related.

For instance, greed can be a successful trait from an individual’s point of view, but not from a group’s point of view.  A group made up of uncooperative people will not be able to hunt big game or to cooperate on military strategy.   People with more cooperative genes will eventually overtake them.

In a similar vein, a priest won’t pass on his own genes, but his celibacy is a sign of devotion to his community, enabling him to pass on memes that strengthen it.  Memes, like genes, compete for the long haul.  Few remember popular songs from 50 years ago, but the ideas of Socrates are still with us.

The rise of civilization, in this light, can be seen as the ever increasing efficiency in meme replication.  In ancient times, the only way a meme could be passed on was through word of mouth (which is why Homer’s epics were told in verse and most oral histories in primitive societies are sung).  Then came writing and binary code.  Our memes drive us to improve.

Meme Strategies

History, in a certain sense, can be seen as mankind’s struggle to account for a universe at which we are truly not at the center.  Our earth is at the mercy of the gravitation pull of greater bodies, our lives are in no small part determined by the accident of our genetic makeup and now it turns out that even our ideas are not fully our own.

It is our memes that are in control. If we want our memes to prosper, we need to look at things from their point of view. Successful memes get that way by utilizing three core strategies:

Replication: Just as information wants to be free, memes want to be replicated (a fact, that the music industry almost destroyed itself trying to ignore).  As Daniel Dennett said, “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library”

Co-Evolution:  Just as fitness is a relative term in the biological world, virality is contingent in the memetic sphere.  Google’s PageRank meme nearly died on the vine until they combined it with Overture’s contextual ad meme.    Memes, like genes, work in complexes and successful ones pick the right partners.

Extension:  Fashions and fads come and go, yet complex ideas like democracy and even Einstein’s theory of relativity survive.  The difference is that some ideas are able to extend themselves, to become the substrate for other ideas.  Will any of Kevin Allocca’s viral videos be as successful as Fellini’s memes? I seriously doubt it.

And that’s the problem with a lot of the chatter about memes.  The focus on device and artifice ignores the one uncomfortable, inescapable and essential fact about memes: They’re the ones in charge, not us.  Ideas matter.  They plundered Europe, destroyed the lives of millions in the Soviet Union and brought down dictators in revolutions.  

The important memes are not the ones that go viral like Ebola in some isolated sub-saharan village, but the ones that transcend the accident of time and place. People will die for an idea, not a cat video.

– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. March 19, 2012


    Thanks for interesting mix of thoughts about memes: from memes monadology (monad – basic unit or entity) to memes networking. Content vs data. Memes vs content. Ideas vs memes. Transcendent vs rational.

  2. March 19, 2012


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