What do you meme?

So I was looking through my news feeds and saw an article on Slashdot titled “Researchers Claim 1,000 Core Chip Created” and I knew without even looking at it that in the comments there would be at least one reference to a Beowulf Cluster and at least one each of “Will it run Linux?” and “Will it run Crysis?” And lo and behold, right there, out of 60 or so comments, there they were.

This got me thinking about memes and specifically Internet memes and why they have become so pervasive. The broad term itself was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene and refers to a transfer of an idea, symbol, or practice, sort of a cultural DNA if you will. So, in a sense, democracy is a meme, as is fascism. But so is the iconic happy face and a skull and crossbones. So it’s not just data, but data with cultural significance that replicates from person to person. Now, on top of that, add the Internet and you have an explosion of memes.Why?

The facile answer is that with all those bits flying about, we and the machines we use to communicate are more easily able to act as vectors for memes that would have been restricted regionally before the dawn of the Information Age (or as I prefer to name it “The Time of  the Blinky Boxes”). I believe that’s probably a large part of it. With the explosion of various ways to communicate with others on a one-to-one or one-to-many basis, we are able to communicate like never before, and with that communication, the virus-like memes hitch along for the ride.

However, I believe it’s also a signal-to-noise ratio issue. Most of the transfer of any information across any medium contains large swaths that are just noise – transient bits of no value, and it’s up to the receiver to parse the signal for information of value. This is as true of radio waves as it is of you and your Aunt Agatha who is blathering on about her summer vacation to Maine when she was seven when all you really need to know is where the fire extinguisher is at. You’ll tune out your dear Aunt’s tale of youthful adventure and not remember a word of it, because all you really want to know is where that damn extinguisher is at. It’s important to you. It relates to you in that your cousin Freddy was playing with a magnifying glass and is currently burning up your pile of comic books. It has, in a word, significance.

With the Internet, we are able to attach significance to a variety of sources, and with the advent of social media, we’re able to have those sources be actual people, but such interactions long predate anything referred to as “Web 2.0” or even “Web” anything for that matter. Internet memes are the progeny of similar interactions that took place on dial-up bulletin boards, website forums, and USENET groups way back when we wore onions on our belts because that was the style at the time. In some cases, for especially long-lived memes, they have actually survived the technological tsunami and been around from that day to this. Need an example? Think emoticons.

Whether it was onion-on-your-belt olden times or today, I think a large part of the reason we continue to exchange these memes like crazy is when dealing with other people over the Internet, we’re communicating in a fundamentally different way then ever before. While people have written letters to each other as long as there’s been writing (“Dear John, Sorry I haven’t written sooner, but my tribe just recently developed an alphabet.”), exchanges over the Internet are often in real-time or near-real-time. There’s the immediacy of in-person contact, but without all those biological and cultural cues that we’ve evolved to deal with and understand each other. With that comes the risk of not only misunderstanding (very easy to understand in nonverbal, non-face-to-face communication) but also without those cultural cues, there’s a lack of information on that sort of significance I mentioned earlier.

In a way, culture is a way for hairless apes to get together and decide what has significance and what doesn’t. And part of what keeps those cultures coherent and stable is the exchange and affirmations of what those things are. So when we interact with each other over the Internet, battling the lack of geographic and temporal cohesion, we seek to reinforce the cultural ties we have by sending out these little memes and expecting to have them transmitted to us as well. It’s how we evaluate what is the signal and what is the noise. When it comes down to it, there is an Internet culture, or rather several, and we all seek to maintain our ties to what we identify with most.

And I guess this where my ponderings ended up. We’ve all seen “news” articles or TV show segments about how technology is “ruining” us, our young, and how our culture as we know it is under siege. I disagree with almost all of that, as I am a firm believer in different not being bad (or good, for that matter). It’s just different, and the emergence of new nongeographic and atemporal cultures will bring about both good and bad in probably about the same degree as every other culture humans have ever created. But they are indeed unique cultures, and its the memes we trade back and forth that identify them as new and separate entities. Oh, and the part above that I did agree with? Every culture, at every moment in it’s existence, is under siege — either from older cultures trying to wring out a few more moments of existence, or newer or more successful cultures looking to supplant it. Survival of the fittest — the oldest meme of all.

So please continue to use “All your base are belong to us,” “FUUUUUUUUUUUUU,” and hashtag your Tweets with obscure references to movies, comics, games, and LOLcats. It’s who you are, and it’s who I am, and it helps tie together the whole messy ball that is Geek Culture. It’s double-rainbow, all the way.

Note: I am not trained in the study of memetics, and in case someone so trained comes across this post at some point, I offer my pre-emptive apology. I probably got some stuff wrong, but I did try and find some good sources to balance out my ignorance on the subject, including one article from The Guardian on Internet memes from 2000 titled “It’s all in the memes.” Any errors I blame on being reminded of dancing hamsters.

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