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With the rise of information theory, ideas were seen as behaving like organisms, replicating by leaping from brain to brain, interacting to form new ideas and evolving in what the scientist Roger Sperry called "a burstwise advance." (Illustration by Stuart Bradford)

What Defines a Meme?

Our world is a place where information can behave like human genes and ideas can replicate, mutate and evolve

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One source of resistance—or at least unease—was the shoving of us humans toward the wings. It was bad enough to say that a person is merely a gene’s way of making more genes. Now humans are to be considered as vehicles for the propagation of memes, too. No one likes to be called a puppet. Dennett summed up the problem this way: “I don’t know about you, but I am not initially attracted by the idea of my brain as a sort of dung heap in which the larvae of other people’s ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational diaspora.... Who’s in charge, according to this vision—we or our memes?”

He answered his own question by reminding us that, like it or not, we are seldom “in charge” of our own minds. He might have quoted Freud; instead he quoted Mozart (or so he thought): “In the night when I cannot sleep, thoughts crowd into my mind.... Whence and how do they come? I do not know and I have nothing to do with it.”

Later Dennett was informed that this well-known quotation was not Mozart’s after all. It had taken on a life of its own; it was a fairly successful meme.

For anyone taken with the idea of memes, the landscape was changing faster than Dawkins had imagined possible in 1976, when he wrote, “The computers in which memes live are human brains.” By 1989, the time of the second edition of The Selfish Gene, having become an adept programmer himself, he had to amend that: “It was obviously predictable that manufactured electronic computers, too, would eventually play host to self-replicating patterns of information.” Information was passing from one computer to another “when their owners pass floppy discs around,” and he could see another phenomenon on the near horizon: computers connected in networks. “Many of them,” he wrote, “are literally wired up together in electronic mail exchange.... It is a perfect milieu for self-replicating programs to flourish.” Indeed, the Internet was in its birth throes. Not only did it provide memes with a nutrient-rich culture medium, it also gave wings to the idea of memes. Meme itself quickly became an Internet buzzword. Awareness of memes fostered their spread.

A notorious example of a meme that could not have emerged in pre-Internet culture was the phrase “jumped the shark.” Loopy self-reference characterized every phase of its existence. To jump the shark means to pass a peak of quality or popularity and begin an irreversible decline. The phrase was thought to have been used first in 1985 by a college student named Sean J. Connolly, in reference to an episode of the television series “Happy Days” in which the character Fonzie (Henry Winkler), on water skies, jumps over a shark. The origin of the phrase requires a certain amount of explanation without which it could not have been initially understood. Perhaps for that reason, there is no recorded usage until 1997, when Connolly’s roommate, Jon Hein, registered the domain name jumptheshark.com and created a web site devoted to its promotion. The web site soon featured a list of frequently asked questions:

Q. Did “jump the shark” originate from this web site, or did you create the site to capitalize on the phrase?

A. This site went up December 24, 1997, and gave birth to the phrase “jump the shark.” As the site continues to grow in popularity, the term has become more commonplace. The site is the chicken, the egg and now a Catch-22.

It spread to more traditional media in the next year; Maureen Dowd devoted a column to explaining it in the New York Times in 2001; in 2002 the same newspaper’s “On Language” columnist, William Safire, called it “the popular culture’s phrase of the year”; soon after that, people were using the phrase in speech and in print without self-consciousness—no quotation marks or explanation—and eventually, inevitably, various cultural observers asked, “Has ‘jump the shark’ jumped the shark?” Like any good meme, it spawned mutations. The “jumping the shark” entry in Wikipedia advised in 2009, “See also: jumping the couch; nuking the fridge.”

Is this science? In his 1983 column, Hofstadter proposed the obvious memetic label for such a discipline: memetics. The study of memes has attracted researchers from fields as far apart as computer science and microbiology. In bioinformatics, chain letters are an object of study. They are memes; they have evolutionary histories. The very purpose of a chain letter is replication; whatever else a chain letter may say, it embodies one message: Copy me. One student of chain-letter evolution, Daniel W. VanArsdale, listed many variants, in chain letters and even earlier texts: “Make seven copies of it exactly as it is written” (1902); “Copy this in full and send to nine friends” (1923); “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life” (Revelation 22:19). Chain letters flourished with the help of a new 19th-century technology: “carbonic paper,” sandwiched between sheets of writing paper in stacks. Then carbon paper made a symbiotic partnership with another technology, the typewriter. Viral outbreaks of chain letters occurred all through the early 20th century. Two subsequent technologies, when their use became widespread, provided orders-of-magnitude boosts in chain-letter fecundity: photocopying (c. 1950) and e-mail (c. 1995).

Inspired by a chance conversation on a hike in the Hong Kong mountains, information scientists Charles H. Bennett from IBM in New York and Ming Li and Bin Ma from Ontario, Canada, began an analysis of a set of chain letters collected during the photocopier era. They had 33, all variants of a single letter, with mutations in the form of misspellings, omissions and transposed words and phrases. “These letters have passed from host to host, mutating and evolving,” they reported in 2003.

Like a gene, their average length is about 2,000 characters. Like a potent virus, the letter threatens to kill you and induces you to pass it on to your “friends and associates”—some variation of this letter has probably reached millions of people. Like an inheritable trait, it promises benefits for you and the people you pass it on to. Like genomes, chain letters undergo natural selection and sometimes parts even get transferred between coexisting “species.”

Reaching beyond these appealing metaphors, the three researchers set out to use the letters as a “test bed” for algorithms used in evolutionary biology. The algorithms were designed to take the genomes of various modern creatures and work backward, by inference and deduction, to reconstruct their phylogeny—their evolutionary trees. If these mathematical methods worked with genes, the scientists suggested, they should work with chain letters, too. In both cases the researchers were able to verify mutation rates and relatedness measures.

Still, most of the elements of culture change and blur too easily to qualify as stable replicators. They are rarely as neatly fixed as a sequence of DNA. Dawkins himself emphasized that he had never imagined founding anything like a new science of memetics. A peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics came to life in 1997—published online, naturally—and then faded away after eight years partly spent in self-conscious debate over status, mission and terminology. Even compared with genes, memes are hard to mathematize or even to define rigorously. So the gene-meme analogy causes uneasiness and the genetics-memetics analogy even more.

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