What is a Meme?

What is a Meme
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What is a Meme?

Memetics is rapidly becoming a discipline in its own right. Many web-sites are being devoted to the study of memetics, and new e-papers are appearing every day.

With this in mind, I want to step back and have another look at what it is we are talking about. What is a meme?

In the first section of this small e-paper, I’ll get back to basics and will offer a tangible definition of a meme. I will then move on to the next section and ask “what can we do with our knowledge of memes?”

What is a Meme?

Richard Dawkins first came up with the idea of a meme in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”. Essentially, memes are ideas that evolve according to the same principles that govern biological evolution. Think about all the ideas that you have in your head right now.

They are all memes, and they all came from somewhere.

Some of them will have come from friends and some will have come from the internet or television. Examples of memes are musical tunes, jokes, trends, fashions, catch phrases, and car designs. Now, the memes that inhabit your mind are in competition with all the other memes in the memepool (the collection of all existing memes).

This means that they are all competing to get themselves copied into other people’s minds. Some of these memes do quite well.

Every time you whistle your favorite tune or utter a useful catch phrase, you are facilitating the spread of those memes. Every time you wear something that is “in fashion” you are helping the idea of that fashion enter other people’s minds.

Consider the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, or the “Happy Birthday” song. These are ideas that inhabit our minds and have been very successful at replicating.

Not only have these memes found their way into literally millions of minds, they have also managed to leave copies of themselves on paper, in books, on audiotape, on compact disks, and in computer hard-drives (Silby 2000).

There is a limited amount of memetic storage space on this planet, so only the best memes manage to implant themselves.

Memes that are good at replicating tend to leave more copies of themselves in minds and in other mediums such as books. Memes that are not so good at replicating tend to die out. We can imagine what sorts of memes have become extinct.

Ancient songs that were once sung and never written down are one example. Another example is the many stories that were once told but have since slipped into oblivion. A Story is a vast collection of memes that have come to rely on each other for replication.

Such a structure is known as a memeplex. Stories are memeplexes that are in direct competition with other memeplexes.

If a story replicates through story getting told and read by people, then it will survive. If it stops getting read, it will become extinct. Libraries are full of memetic fossils in the form of books that contain a multitude of ideas that are never looked at (Silby 2000).

You will see that memes behave in a similar way to genes. Furthermore, you will notice that like genes, memes are subject to selection pressures.

Whenever you have a situation that contains a number of unique entities that are competing for limited resources, the entities that are better at reproducing will leave more copies of themselves.

In the case of memetics, memes are competing for minds to inhabit, and those that are better at reproducing are those that manage to get expressed in behavior (for example, behavior such as whistling).

Defining memes as ideas is standard, but it gives rise to an objection. The objection goes like this:

All this talk of memes and memetic evolution is meaningless unless we can identify exactly what a meme is. Ideas can come in all shapes and sizes, but there seems to be no way to identify their composite memes.

How can we point to a memetic unit? How big is a meme? What is the difference between competing memes? How can they be distinguished from each other?

These are good questions. To further highlight the problem with memetics, consider the first 4 notes of Beethoven’s 5th symphony.

This is a meme that has found its way into most people’s minds. But how about the entire symphony?

It too has found its way into the minds of many people. Is the whole symphony a meme? And if so, then what about the first four notes? What about the first 3 notes; or the first 5 notes? Are these all memes?

The best way to think of a memetic unit is to consider it to be the smallest idea that copies itself completely while remaining intact.

So the first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th is a meme, but the first 3 is not. The 4th note is always there making up the memetic unit. The entire symphony is a huge collection of small memetic units — a memeplex.

The memes that make up Beethoven’s 5th might have been good individual replicators in Beethoven’s day. Or they may have been attached to other memeplexes.

Beethoven’s mind collected these memes and somehow they got connected giving rise to his famous symphony. Now they depend upon each other for continued replication.

Of course, the question remains. What is a memetic unit? How can we point to a meme?

What are we talking about when we say that a meme is the smallest idea that can copy itself while remaining self contained and intact?

The answer to this is quite simple. Memes are essentially sets of instructions that can be followed to produce behavior. Instructions can be encoded in either:

1) musical notation,

2) written text,

3) visible (or vocal) action,

4) the neural structure of the brain.

5) digitized structures in a computer

A meme that produces the behavior of whistling the first 4 notes of Beethoven’s fifth can be encoded in any of these systems and it will give rise to the same behavior.

When a mind encounters an instruction set that produces behavior, it can reproduce that behavior by creating an appropriate neural “program”. The best way to think about this is to consider an analogy in the computer world.

Imagine that a robot is developed which contains a number of built in programs. One of these programs gives it the ability to write small behavioral routines. Essentially the robot can alter its behavior by writing small programs.

A feature of this program is that it allows the robot to observe the behavior of other robots and write programs that produce the same behavior. In effect, it can imitate other robots. Now, these programs are memes.

They are not a part of the robot’s innate behavior — rather, they are produced by imitation. Such programs can be translated into different languages and written down on paper.

They can also be transmitted to other robots who read the instructions or who imitate the behavior and write their own programs.

This is precisely the sort of process that goes on in humans.

At some distant point in history, biological evolution provided our ancestors with a capacity to imitate behavior.

This meant that humans could observe the behavior of others and their brains would produce the neural wiring needed to produce the same behavior.

A neural wiring pattern that produces behavior is essentially a list of instructions, which can be translated into other mediums — written language, outward behavior, or computer code.

A list of behavior producing instructions is the thing that replicates and spreads into the minds of others. A list of instructions is a meme.

What can we do with Memetics?

Having a definition of a meme is one thing; doing something useful with it is another. How can we use our knowledge of memes? There are several applications for memetics. First, it can be used as an explanatory tool.

Thinkers have been looking to aspects of human behavior and have been using memetics to offer explanations for why such behavior exists. Memetics can also be used explain human creations such as technology, music, and literature.

Memeticists look at an aspect of human creativity and then construct a memetic history that may have resulted in that aspect of creativity.

Of course, constructing historical accounts of any sort of evolutionary process is a dangerous business. Evidence is fragmentary, and it is impossible to determine the truth from the “just so” stories.

Another approach is to deconstruct a human creation — such as a piece of music — and discover the components that brought the creation together.

By doing this, memeticists may eventually come to understand why it is that certain memes manage to attach to each other for mutual survival in a memeplex.

They may also discover what it is about certain groups of memes that make them such good replicators.

In addition to the above, memetics has the potential to enhance our study of psychology.

In the future, psychologists may look to memetics to discover the origin of certain psychological conditions.

Perhaps multiple personality disorder could be explained by the existence of two (or more) competing memeplexes that each define a sense of self (Susan Blackmore (1999) calls such a memeplex a ‘selfplex’).

The idea behind this thinking is that a human mind is basically a memetic construct. When a brain becomes inhabited by a suitable collection of memes, they form a mind and a selfplex develops.

Anomalies such as psychological depression (non-physiological) or addiction might be explained by memetic viruses that influence the behavior of the selfplex.

Putting these possibilities aside, the ultimate goal of memetics should be its ability to predict behavior and the evolution of future memetic structures.

Future memetic psychologists could use their knowledge of memetics to predict what will happen when people are exposed to certain combinations of memes.

If they are successful at making such predictions, then it will be possible to determine which combinations of memes will lead to the production of criminal behavior.

Attempts could then be made to filter certain memes out of the memepool. Of course, this would open up a new debate on the wisdom of censorship and the purposive destruction of memes. Who, after all, would decide which memes to force into extinction?

Into the Future…

The “meme” meme has successfully gotten itself entrenched in the memepool.

It is spreading rapidly around the human species at the speed of light, and it will one day have infected everyone’s mind. Its reproductive success is a testimony to its infectious power.

There is something about the “meme” meme that makes it a good replicator. It fits in well with the other memes that inhabit our minds, and there is something about it that makes us want to communicate it to other people. We are enabling its survival.

Memes offer us a way to understand our psychology and the evolution of our thoughts, technology, artifacts, music, and art.

They can be defined as small sets of instructions that produce behavior. When enough of these instructions get together in a brain, a mind develops. Such a mind can be understood and predicted by looking at its composite memes.

With its explanatory power, and its potential to make behavioral predictions, memetics will become an essential addition to a psychologist’s tool kit.

As its success increases, memetics will take over where psychology has left off, and will become a driving force in the study of human behavior.

Memes were Assimilated from the Following Sources:

Blackmore, Susan. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, Richard. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, Richard. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. London: Longmans.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Penguin Books, 1993.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Penguin Books, 1996.

Silby, Brent. (2000). “The Evolution of Technology: Exposing the Myth of Creative Design”.

Internet Memes: What Are They?

History of Internet Memes

Historically, an internet meme was a bit of cultural information that was spread through word of mouth.

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This usually took the form of a story, a fable /parable, or a joke. But because of increasing technology, internet memes now travel much faster than spoken word. We see and hear them all the time now, but what is the origin of Internet memes?

Origin of Memes

A Meme is an idea that was defined by Richard Dawkins in his book Selfish Gene in 1976. It was formally defined as a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation. Examples of this would be songs, ideas, slogans, fashions, and jokes.

Richard Dawkins was an evolutionist scientist, who was interested in memes, and their relationship with the gene pool.

A meme is a piece of cognitive information that becomes behavior, which people replicate. Today, memes are studied less by biologists (like Richard Dawkin) and more by sociologists and psychologists, and more.

However, the memes most important task, which is what makes it a meme, is that it is shared and / or replicated over and over again, this is the core of what is an internet meme.

What is an Internet Meme?

Now, what is an Internet Meme?

Put simply the Internet meme is a picture, video or other media. that has passed electronically from one Internet user to another.

Due to the increased power of the Internet for communication, memes have experienced a dramatic change in the 21st century in their ability to spread and influence culture.

Due to the speed at which they can travel through media avenues, they have become fairly common phenomenon. They are often completely random, and with little depth.

A definition proposed by the Urban Dictionary describes the word, an internet meme is a”internet information generator, especially of random or no information content.”

So if you’ve heard of memes and are searching Google for “what a meme is”, with the hope of being filled with some insightful and stimulating secret, then you may be discouraged.

However, the fact that you’ve heard of them, proves that Internet Memes are influencing culture.

Who creates Memes?

It’s very possible you’re now thinking, who creates them?

As mentioned previously, memes are not very intelligent looking, sometimes, one can’t even understand them.

They are random, crazy, sometimes even ugly, stupid and all together meaningless, and if you have used any time on the Internet, you know, that this material is everywhere. However, the definition of a meme requires that the meme become popular. So, although there are many potentials created every day, it’s not official.

Becoming “official” is very vague and difficult to predict.

The story of the Milhouse meme is a perfect example. 4chan is a forum where many of the popular memes become official. A well-known debate on this site was Milhouse, from the Simpsons. For several years, the legitimacy of Milhouse was hotly debated.

Its acceptance has been so hotly contested that it has become a meme of protest.

The protest against him was strong enough to make Milhouse famous, and therefore by definition is a meme. The term “Milhouse is not a meme” is a paradoxical statement that is used to refer to a protesting meme.

Everyone has the ability to create a meme. The only condition is that it is random, and to be popular. Thousands of people are trying every day to create the next meme, but very few succeed.

Mind Your Memes

In 1976 Biologist Richard Dawkins likened the proliferation of cultural symbols, ideas, and behaviors to the biological process through which genetic coding is passed across generations.

Dawkins called these units of cultural information memes (pronounced similarly to genes). Richard Brodie (author of Virus of the Mind) adds that these memes are “… a thought, belief, or attitude in your mind that can spread to and from other people’s minds.”

Memes range from the positive (e.g., Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself) to the negative (e.g., Kill or be killed).

This article will focus on the negative end of the continuum, examining five memes that often rear their ugly head during change efforts.

1) That’s not how we do things here. This meme is as old as time and while we’d love to believe that in the post-bureaucratic organizational world it has been relegated to history’s trash heap, unfortunately it is still alive and kicking. Sometimes the ways “things are done around here” are indeed hardwired into policies, procedures, union contracts, etc.

But more times than not, when you see this meme it is being offered by someone who is attempting to derail a change they don’t agree with.

Deflecting this meme is generally quite easy.

When someone offers it up, ask them to show you where in the company policies, union agreement, etc. that this amorphous/elusive “thing” is found. You’ll be amazed by how fast this meme is dropped when it’s held under the microscope!

2) That will never work. This is a variant of the above and is often offered hand-and-hand with the “that’s not how we do things here” meme.

This meme is more challenging to deal with, because it deals with some speculative future state. Whenever we deal with a future state, there is obviously a significant degree of uncertainty.

Individuals offering this meme are trying to capitalize on this cloudiness and thereby tap into their co-workers’ risk aversion.

Remember, when dealing with this meme, your goal is not to change the mind of the person offering it (which is generally a waste of time and effort), but rather you are trying to win over the critical mass of folks on your team who are yet infected.

How do you inoculate against this meme?

In large measure, you mitigate this when you give people as much information as possible. This information might take the form of the concrete actions steps and anticipated contingencies involved in moving in this new direction. It might also involve sharing some external examples of companies/teams that have had success doing a similar thing.

A second way to immunize against this meme is to get your team together to collaboratively address the potential negative issues.

Then, you use the “foot in the door” technique to assure the team that you are collaboratively exploring this new direction, nothing more. Of course, you have to brace yourself for the possibility that this strategy may result in a team no-go decision.

However, what you can guarantee is if the team decides to move forward, you’ll have incredible levels of buy-in.

The last approach involves building enthusiasm around a compelling vision of what the future might look like when your team pulls this off.

Two conditions must be present to make this work: 1) you need to be a genuinely visionary and persuasive individual and 2) you need to have a pretty significant level of buy-in to begin with so that your efforts are targeted only to the folks sitting on the fence.

3) We’ve tried that before and it didn’t work. More of the above, but this time it has the apparent authority of past failures to bolster the virility of the meme.

When you run into this meme, you will actually question whether the idea is good or not yourself. In fact, this meme is quite often a game stopper. The trick to overcoming this meme is to identify some reasonable people on your team and work through the process with them.

The approach here is to articulate to these folks that you are very passionate about your change and you need help understanding its lack of viability before giving up on it.

During the process your goal is threefold. First, you should find out as much about the previous attempt as possible. In particular, look for aspects of the past effort that are not analogous with what you are attempting to do.

Don’t tip your hand during this fact finding effort as this information will be far more powerful later if you decide to move forward with the project.

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Second, you should enlist these folks in identifying potential solutions to the problems (perceived or real) with your proposal.

Again, this will yield tremendous insights (especially in terms of what the most common objections will be) that will help you later if you decide to push on. Third, you should use this process as a genuine validity check on your proposed change.

Maybe, just maybe you ARE wrong and sincere open-mindedness could save you a lot of downstream grief.

Keep in mind that throughout this process you must refrain for trying to sell your idea– that time will come later. And when it does, if you take advantage of the information you accumulated you will artfully advocate that your proposed change is different from what was tried in the past and here’s why!

4) “They’ll” never go for that. Oh, this meme is beautiful insofar as there are so many “they’s” that can be offered up. Upper management won’t approve it. Other departments won’t support it. Employees will never accept it. Customers won’t embrace it. Suppliers won’t like it. Do any of these sound familiar? This meme can have you running around in circles if you let it. The trick is to not let it!

To guard against this meme, you need to first determine how widespread it is. If only a few team members are infected, then you can probably invest your efforts on everyone else and ignore those who offer it up.

If you’ve reached plague level, then your best antidote is to bring some “they’s” into the process. If “they” were indeed against the change, you may be able to co-opt or assuage them through inclusion. You also might find out that “they” never had a problem with it in the first place!

5) We don’t have the resources to do that. Of all the anti-change memes, this one is the hardest to treat. It may be a reality that your organization suffers from a paucity of money, people, technology, facilities, knowledge, what have you.

This meme can also be a game stopper, especially if you entertain it at the start of the change process. You should make every effort to put this meme off until the end of the process.

If people are interested in the change, but don’t believe that the resources are available, you can ask them to hold off on that discussion until after you have collaboratively vetted out the goals, action steps and potential positive outcomes of the change.

Don’t promise that you’ll be a “rainmaker” and make the resources magically materialize. You’ll likely squander your credibility and your change effort will be DOA. Instead, argue that the team should focus on building as compelling of a case as possible and then invest your efforts in building momentum and buy-in.

In the end, the soundness of your change agenda and the level of commitment from your team may persuade the “powers that be” to “shake free” the needed resources.

Regardless, what can be said with great confidence is that if you build buy-in toward a hard to achieve goal, you’ll find all kinds of ways to leverage the resources you have. (For more information on leveraging resources, see Hamel and Prahalad’s article Strategy as Stretch and Leverage.)

The intent of this article is not to imply that memes are easy to deal with and overcome.

Instead, the goal was to make you aware that these “mind viruses” are out there and just like the Black Plague they can sweep through the population (i.e., your team/organization) and wreak havoc. The first line of defense when they take hold is to recognize that they are present.

Then when you have a handle on how they are manifesting, you can unleash the appropriate course of treatment to contain and then kill these mind viruses before they spread.

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