Re: virus: contagious memes
Sat, 23 Jan 1999 09:29:46 EST

In a message dated 1/21/99 12:20:27 PM Central Standard Time, writes:

<< Hi all,

I work in advertising. I work as an account planner, representing the voice of the consumer in the agency. I moderate focus groups, but I rely on my understanding of memetics heavily. Here's the million dollar question:

What are the elements of a highly communicable meme?

I have two areas of inquiry here:

  1. what are the parameters of a highly communicable meme? What are the elements necessary to have an idea take on an elevated life, where the meme from the commercial or movie or news or what-have-you continues through culture when the source is no longer present.
  2. what are the waves of structure that breed a highly communicable meme? Are there elements of the source that make a meme more contagious? Obviously, media weight comes into play, in terms of exposure, but are there common patterns in terms of how powerful memes spread the fastest? For instance, Starbucks uses a build out plan that mirrors growth of stones as seen on a go board.

I'm not talking about memes in terms of "effective" advertising. Ads can be very effective without taking on the type of life I'm referring to. I'm talking about stuff like The Energizer Bunny, "Where's the beef?" or Big Mac Attack. Last summer, we had the phrase, "Show me the money."

These are ideas that became emblematic of something larger than their source. My first take as to the source of their life-spring is that these ideas express an emotion or a shared perception where their hadn't been a way of communicating these notions before.

For instance, the advertisers of McDonalds realized that people often notice they are really hungry and need food quickly. If they don't eat, they just keep thinking about eating. They labeled this sensation a "Big Mac Attack." Within a couple months after running, people were using the phrase "Big Mac Attack" to mean the sudden onset of hunger as opposed to meaning they were necessarily going to McDonalds.

Obviously, having a word or phrase makes it easier to bring into language. The Energizer Bunny is a notable exception. The image connected with
people before the phrase "Energizer Bunny" came about.

I'm wondering if something in chaos theory suggests levels of stability or complexity, or if there is another discipline that suggests the stages of development these memes go through.

I look forward to hearing your comments.


P.S. Are there any colleges offering classes in memetics?

Hi Ben. I noted your frustration in lack of response. Wanted to let you know I actually read what you wrote, and thought about it. I am not sure that there is any authoritative way that has yet emerged to deal with the questions that you ask. Right now I think "memetics" is a playground subject for philosopher kings and queens who like to stay relevant to science and scientific ideas. That is not a putdown, because I proudly consider myself in that group. But there is no way to consider memetics a science at this point. I think most honest memeticists would tell you that straight up.

I don't know if I have a good response yet to your questions, but since you seemed frustrated I decided to respond anyway. My initial thoughts are this.

I think of the memotype as the representation itself - that which is replicated - not what it means. What it means is what I consider a phemotype - how the replicated expression manifests itself in the environment of the recipient mind.

Since we are focussing on what makes a particular memotype replicate more than other memotypes - I would think that is a very complicated question. I imagine that there are many strategies that "work". A few examples. Mulitiplicity - having several or many layers of meaning that can phemotypically be extracted from the same memotypical representation. This can make it useful to different people for different reasons - perhaps even some contradictory. ("What if God was one of us?") Versatility - having one or a few meanings that are highly useful for many different situations. ("Show me the money!") Universality - having one or a few meanings that are universally useful - (usually relating to a base emotional or biolgical factor - "Big Mac Attack").

Those are my "philosopher king" answers. They aren't the least bit authoritative like a scientific answer, but they are honestly based on the way I see things.

I don't think there are any places teachings classes on memetics, but let me know if you hear of any.

As far as the lack of respect - very thick skin is a good asset in cyberspace - but respect is still very useful. Just remember that anybody can subscribe to this list and that anybody can post to it. But not everybody who does so, necessarily has something worthwhile to say or is worth the effort. But generally I think its a pretty decent list, with high points as well as low points.