When Big Media Aren’t the Biggest

Why rethinking memes might help inoculate against the viral marketing disease.

A meme is rather like pornography — you don’t necessarily know what it is but you know it when you see it. And yet, it is possible to set out some general descriptions of the kinds of meme that circulate online and upon which business empires have been built.

The idea of viral marketing — when some piece of content “goes viral” — is marketing mana. It is what seemingly every marketing exec tasks their gen-y creatives to produce. And yet, the very idea of viral marketing is all wrong. It comes from the work of Douglas Rushkoff, who was actually warning against the way media content spreads like a virus:

Once attached, the virus injects its more hidden agendas into the datastream in the form of ideological code not genes, but a conceptual equivalent we now call “memes.”

Via Flickr/bmindful

In this post, I explore at least two types of memes that circulate on the internet and the idea of memetic principles. These two are co-existent and interrelated, and descriptions of both arise from a wider cultural conversation. Paradoxically, however, certain memes online are not expected to comply with memetic principles, which obscures the nature of memetics online by anchoring the terminology to only the most visible meme objects.

However, this does not exclude these memes from having memetic principles. The two types discussed below are:

  1. true memes — those that are inherently memetic; and
  2. object memes — those that have arisen from memetic principles but are not necessarily defined by or reliant on them

Before discussing the different types of memes, it is important to note the complex history underlying the language and focus of memetics and memes. The concept arose (or, more accurately, was coined) by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins’ discussion was of ideas by way of a biological metaphor. He argued that the reproduction of ideas as they pass from one person to another was analogous to the self-replication of biological material in genes. Dawkins was not the first to suggest a “descent with modification” model for cultural studies, but his terminology has been persistent and was reinforced by Rushkoff. Others studying the concepts of self and consciousness expanded the concept.

In the final edition of the Journal of Memetics in 2005, Bruce Edmonds argued that the narrow study of memetics as it applies to information transmission and the evolution of ideas had failed. Presciently though, he noted it still had resonance for the study of communication, but without specific or close referents of gene-memes that were born of Dawkins’ work. Marshall McLuhan — the ‘father of media studies’ — also argued for a biologically based understanding of media, calling them: “extensions of our physical and nervous systems”.

The terminology of memes and memetics is still resonant and useful for analyses of social networks because key behaviours of users on those networks include sharing and resharing. There is a technical element — the sharing capabilities built into each specific media tool — but it would be largely irrelevant if not for human action. It is the replication and spread of object memes as created by sharing and re-sharing that is here referred to as the memetic principle.

Rushkoff applied memetics to the study of replication in electronic media in Media Virus, and it is also used in the computer sciences as an umbrella term for programming hybrids. So although the terms are in wide use, such use is only vaguely related to the gene-meme metaphor, contributing to a situation where multiple types of meme are present in the popular consciousness. Indeed, Burman says Dawkins has been misconstrued and that, in fact, the meme was a mere “rhetorical flourish intended to clarify a larger argument”. This argument would have it that present usage of the term could only be vaguely related to Dawkins’ work at best because it is a misunderstanding of The Selfish Gene.

Nonetheless, the word ‘meme’ arrived in the popular press in 1983 as being equivalent to culture as the gene to biology, that is, as an idea replicator. Burman’s main complaint is that a meme itself is not an active unit, and cannot be so under Dawkins’ own description since Dawkins was proposing the meme only as an explicatory tool (in this case a metaphor) rather than an element in its own right.

I am proposing memetic principles as sociocultural behaviours that have some distance from the gene-meme construct, and I argue that the meme as active — or at least as inviting action — is more useful to understanding net culture than the necessarily self-replicating meme Burman describes. In other words, the usage — and therefore the argument — has moved on from Burman’s critique to such an extent that it is irrelevant to continue a semantic debate about Dawkins’ intentions. This derivative approach, ironically, is closer to the gene metaphor because of its evolution-like progress.

Now to the two types of meme as they are circulated online. Perhaps the most visible of these is the object meme, which, paradoxically, need not be reliant upon memetic principles. These meme types often consist of recurring visual motifs overlaid with phrasal templates, the combinations of which are (often) prescribed by convention. They regularly arise from popular media items such as films and television, but may come from more obscure sources or common usage. The motifs themselves are undoubtedly memetic in that they are imitative and often replicative but their particular combinations need not be so. There are simple websites available with libraries of templates — visual and textual — from which users can pick and combine as they see fit.

In a conversation across the blogs Language Log and Agoraphilia in 2003 and 2004, the linguist Glen Whitman coined the term “snowclone” to describe these combinable units. But the meme-objects generated this way, or similarly through other software-assisted creation, are not inherently memetic since they might never be shared and therefore never socially replicated. Simply put, object memes are derivative rather than necessarily imitative. Pullum says the snowclones used in these object memes are “a multi-use, customizable, instantly recognizable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence” coupled with an image that also possesses these properties. In combination, they are object memes.

On the other hand, true memes are defined by the participatory processes of being shared, reshared, and replicated — the memetic principles to which Dawkins’ metaphor referred. Whether these objects appear to conform to the cultural tropes attached to object memes is irrelevant. They may be combinations of popular images overlaid with text, or they may be wholly textual, wholly visual, wholly aural, videographic or any combination of these elements. They may or may not include snowclones. Instead of memes, these pieces of content have come to be understood as ‘viral’ — harking back to Rushkoff.

In order to achieve memetic property, the objects merely need to be actively disseminated by net users, through sharing, posting, retweeting or even liking. Once a piece of content has achieved some undefined critical mass, it is referred to as ‘going viral’. The number of engagement actions needed on a given meme-object in order for it to be considered memetic or having achieved virality is indeterminate, as it is dependent on highly contextual factors.

Rather than a self-replicating process, or even an unconscious process, memetic sharing online is active engagement on the part of users. It is not something that can necessarily be engineered and it is not defined by some numerical number known only to marketers.