I deal with memes daily in my dual roles as: 1) culture cartographer (trend forecasting for Kaplan Thaler Group); 2) student (studying human psychology and behavior in pursuit of my masters degree in education). I scour the media, talk with people and engage in “social listening” to identify and understand trends and memes. I share my views on memes on this blog, in class and at work, which in turn creates new memes in the minds of my readers, fellow students, colleagues and clients. Thus, the nature of my work makes me a meme whisperer.
what’s a meme?
The term and concept of memes come from the 1976 book by Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. Though Dawkins defined the meme as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation,” memeticists (who practice the study of “memetics”). Memes are “ideas, like genes, that replicate and evolve. They are the things we believe without questioning and that we pass down from generation to generation. A meme is a unit of cultural information that represents a basic idea that can be transferred from one individual to another.” Like a game of “telephone,” memes mutate, crossover and adapt as they’re transferred. Memes are the “cultural counterpart of genes.” Memes can be dangerous as they’re the result of “hive-mind” and “group-think” mentality.
Examples of memes include: proverbs, religious beliefs, jingles, fashion, children’s games, conspiracy theories, urban myths, old wives’ tales, concepts (justice, freedom, equality), group-based biases (anti-Semitism, racism), turns of phrases, jokes, nursery rhymes, habits (kissing on both cheeks), behaviors (folding toilet paper, napkin art).
Some memes are universal and some are cultural. For example, the meme “belief in God” is global, while the meme “waaaaaassssup?” is specific to American culture. With the Internet being global, there are “Internet memes” that spread across cultures and languages and become pan-memetic.
super-cool internet meme project
While attending New York University’s Tisch ITP show a couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a project which visualizes internet memes. The ITP show highlights the best of interactive technology from the students of NYU’s Interactive Technology Program (ITP). A data-visualization (i.e., mapping) project created by student and creative technologist Zoe Fraade-Blanar, called “Current,” aggregates internet chat and spits out an organic visual “map” of memes from chatter on the Internet over the past 24 hours. According to Zoe, “by visually anthropomorphizing the capricious nature of public attention Current can spotlight missed opportunities in news coverage.” Zoe’s website is binaryspark.
Current is a really cool tool to see what’s prevalent our zeitgeist and to watch “meme maps” unfold.
leaving a meme legacy
I realize that when I die I can only leave two legacies: genes and/or memes. I can pass on my genes if I choose to have children (or donate my eggs), but I’ve read that my genetic contribution will be lost within 3-4 generations. With each passing generation my genetic contribution halves – and within a few generations my genes become proportionately negligible. So, I’m not going to achieve immortality or leave a meaningful legacy by making babies.
On the other hand, if I create a meaningful meme I could shape humanity, permanently change the course of human evolution. Dawkins wrote, “if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool; Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.” Hmmmm, a great reminder to turn off the TV and get to work on your personal meme-making projects!