Memes Are Viruses of the Mind

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What is a Meme?

The term "Meme" was originally introduced by Richard Dawkins in connection with his theory of evolutionary biology. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins stated memes are an important part of Universal Darwinsim, which postulates that natural selection applies to cultural beliefs and thoughts, as well as physical adaption.

The word is derived from the Greek root of "mimema" which means something that can be imitated. Another example of a word using this root is "mimic."

A meme is a cultural expression that is passed on from one person or group to another person or group. To most people a meme is an image or other digital media used to deliver a short message on social media. The message can be humorous, ironical, political, cute or any other format deemed appropriate to achieve the desired response and engagement. They are generally regarded as causal observations to entertain or annoy friends and contacts.

However, memes can have a much more in-depth behavioral/emotional impact and spread like a virus. 
Memes can change cultural biases and protect older memes from being replaced by new -- the strongest survive. 

We have memes that affect our views in all areas of our lives like popular culture, sex, technology, religion, philosophy, and politics.

The Science of Memes

Characteristics of a Meme

Memes when published cannot easily be controlled. The simple idea being communicated from person to person can easily take on a life of its own and go viral. It's just as likely the meme will not even take off or is forgotten within a few days. Three key characteristics of a Meme:
  • Must be Original -- distinctive enough to stand apart from other messaging.
  • Must be Digestible -- they are not long form communication like a movie or a book, but they can be used the cue, or remind, people of a long form communication.
  • Must be Easily Understood -- simple enough to be easily conveyed to others
Think of a TV commercial where a logo and short tagline message cue up a remembrance of a product or service. For example, the tagline "the ultimate driving machine" once used by BMW cars to distinguish that brand from other car manufacturers. 

Or a short series of beginning musical notes of a song can instantly cue up the remembrance of the entire song itself; for example, a national anthem or a popular song. But that same short series of notes can be tied to a product or service; for example, Beethoven's Fifth was used to brand England's BBC radio during WWII -- these notes translate into Morse Code as the letter V (as in V for victory).

Memes come in three forms:
  • Physical -- imitating a gesture or action. Like noticing what other members of the group are looking at, or reacting to danger without thought; or as simple as a yawn.
  • Technological -- the transmission of a distinct idea/message over a man made delivery mechanism like print, radio, TV, text messages, or the Internet.
  • Personal -- a cultural habit or ritual that acts as a connector for a family or community (like Thanksgiving is not complete without a green bean casserole or the manner in which Christmas gifts are opened).

The Scientific Basis and Elements of Memes

As discussed earlier, memes are subject to what Richard Dawkins called Universal Darwinism and natural selection. Natural selection requires three elements: 
  • Variation -- meaning there will be slight differences between individuals within the same group;
  • Selection -- meaning only some will survive when subject to an environmental event like a disease; and,  
  • Retention -- meaning characteristics can be passed on to others, like your parents' gene pool.
Memes meet the test of natural selection: 
  • We will not always transmit information from person to person verbatim -- like repeating a joke -- thus variation; 
  • We live in a busy world with many different ideas being presented, so only the most persistent and interesting ideas take hold, thus selection; 
  • Finally, things that impress us, like the advertisement of an upcoming musically concert, get passed on to other members of the group, thus retention.

The Elements of a Meme

Memes are comprised of seven elements:
  1. The Memetic Engineer -- is the creator of the meme itself. The creation can be conscious or random. The engineer doesn't need to be human, like an act of nature influencing behavior, or a product brand.
  2. The Hook (the enticement of the meme) -- an idea that attracts us does not have to be true as it is simply an idea.
  3. The Bait -- the promised benefit presented by the meme.
  4. The Vector (Carrier) -- The method used to deliver the meme; like a book, TV show, or email -- in the case of a social network like Facebook it would be the post.
  5. The Host (Infected)-- The person that passed on the vector; a social network can be a host as well -- delivering a post to those its algorithms determined would be interested. The objective is to infect others and they in turn become hosts.
  6. The Memotype -- the actual expression of the meme -- such as the tagline, image or other digital media.
  7. The Sociotype --  The interpretation of the meme based on existing cultural bias; the context the memotype is leveraging.
Each one of these elements must be examined to create effective memes.

The Spread of New Memes

The Basis of Memes:
  • The motivation for creating a meme can be easy as one individual seeking to influence their small circle of friends; it can be as large as a corporation seeking to sell a product or service; or, political party seeking to win elections and obtain political power (key to the context).
  • Memes need human minds (Hosts) in order to exist;
  • In order to continue to exist beyond the life of current hosts, the meme needs to replicate in (i.e., infect) other minds.
  • This replication (spread) is accomplished using a carrier (Vector).
  • The speed and effectiveness of the spread of the meme is dependent on the credibility of the broadcaster (current Host) and what carriers are being used.
There is a large number of potential vectors (carriers) to use to spread a meme: printed material, TV shows, email blasts, websites, social media, and public gatherings are some of the most obvious.

Meme Adoption (Spread)

The biggest hurdle to new meme adoption is trust and credibility.

The most effective means of overcoming the resistance to meme adoption is the word-of-mouth recommendation from people and sources your audience trusts. It is important to always present the truth and speak into the listening of your target audience.

On a personal level these are friends and trusted colleagues. 

For large organizations, investing time and monies to develop well accepted pundits and advocates as influencers leads to increased credibility. These large-scale influencers can be TV news and talk show hosts, sports and entertainment celebrities, business leaders, and politicians.  But it can also be instilled into inanimate objects like a marketing brand (e.g., Nike, Apple, Coca-cola, and Google) or a political party.

Social Immuno-Depressants

Social Immuno-depressants are the means to reduce resistance to meme adoption without establishing credibility or trustworthiness. Examples of social immuno-depressants (a.k.a. as coercion):
  • Fatigue -- just being physically tired, the basis of most military training. 
  • Stress -- personal social, emotional, financial weaknesses and political persecution.
  • Fear -- related to stress but more life threatening events such as war, economic collapse, deadly pandemics, and ecological disasters.
  • Anger -- unfairness and appeals to social injustice, threats and attacks to people's belief systems and way of life.
Most of what we can see today being transmitted by the various carriers are attempts to create immuno-depressants and reduce the resistance to the primary messages that are broadcast at critical times (i.e., elections, introduction of new products and services). 

Futile Attempts to Building Resistance to New Meme Adoption

You can try to protect the memes that are important to your message, in one of three ways:
  • Block access to carriers -- like banning individuals from social media, terminating entire websites or controlling Internet access via "privacy" regulations or denying access to the Internet;
  • Censorship of messages -- unbalanced fact-checking, adjusting search algorithms to prevent the memes from showing up;
  • Attacking the credibility of the individuals making the claim (current hosts); and,
  • The rapid introduction of new memes, attempting to saturate the carriers and confuse the audience.
However, due to the natural selection nature of memes, these types of behaviors are of only temporary relief and benefit. It will keep only weakest of threats from seeing the light of day. The strongest challenges to current memes will bleed through -- and because of their strength have a greater potential to kill off the memes you are trying to protect.

Attacking the credibility of rival hosts with untruths have damaged the carriers promoting the attacks. Such as the ratings for certain news carriers. Unless there's truth to the attacks, eventually the truth will be known and the credibility of the attacking carriers will be destroyed.

Trying to saturate the carriers with new memes, such as short news cycles, only serves to confuse the audience you are attempting to influence. As the audience turns you off and shifts away to other more reliable news sources, the stronger memes will still be presented. 


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