Maybe the West wins the Meme Wars...
August 5, 2002 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Maybe the West wins the Meme Wars......because memes propagate best in highly visual and/or aural mediums. These text based memes may not be as powerful as they used to be because they are harder to incorporate than the newer, more aggressive memes.
posted by mrmanley (26 comments total)
I think that more important than the text/visual/aural relationship is the quantity of information each meme contains. We're talking about, on one hand, logos, catchy riffs, and soft drinks; while on the other hand we have substantial sacred texts. It's just easier to fit the "lo-cal" memes into people's brains.

Further, if that adbusters article is correct, the shorter the meme, the less likely it is to conflict with existing memes people are already carrying around. On the other hand, a smaller meme, when in conflict with a preexisting meme, simply dies out. A larger meme, a religious text for example, can mutate to accomodate the memes of the people to which it spreads.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 2:06 PM on August 5, 2002

I don't think that text-based meme is actually losing ground.
posted by signal at 2:53 PM on August 5, 2002

I like this post, really! But could someone explain the difference between a meme and an idea?
posted by ParisParamus at 2:57 PM on August 5, 2002

a meme is an idea in motion.
posted by zpousman at 3:03 PM on August 5, 2002

And the text-based meme distinction: where's the bright line? For example, song lyrics? A baseball team's logo shown on television? Slogans on television?
posted by ParisParamus at 3:04 PM on August 5, 2002

A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.

1. Something, such as a thought or conception, that potentially or actually exists in the mind as a product of mental activity.
2. An opinion, conviction, or principle: has some strange political ideas.
3. A plan, scheme, or method.
4. The gist of a specific situation; significance: The idea is to finish the project under budget.
5. A notion; a fancy.

Generally, when discussing cultural transmission of ideas, advertising, ideas from a viral or marketing perspective - the word meme is useful. Using it in day to day conversation runs the risk of making one look like a gibbering Omni reader.

A memeplex is a set of symbiotic memes like Christianity or Hofstadter's example:
[meme]if you copy copy copy copy me [/meme]
[meme] I will grant you three wishes [/meme]
[meme] the afterlife. [/meme][/memeplex]
posted by Ryvar at 3:21 PM on August 5, 2002

a meme is an idea in motion

OK, call me dense, but I still don't get it. Could somebody elaborate a little more.

It seems to me that "meme" is the latest buzz word people throw around without having a firm grasp on its definition. Kind of like "paradigm" was a few years back.
posted by TBoneMcCool at 3:22 PM on August 5, 2002

Ryvar: You're a step ahead of me. thanks.
posted by TBoneMcCool at 3:25 PM on August 5, 2002

The big thing about memes (I think) is there is replication, and that they transfer easily into/between people. They're like viral ideas. The WebLog meme is spreading itself over the internet. A phrase like "Coke is It" has been successfully transferred across to millions of people. I also can't say this phrase without it evoking a range of responses not contained within the initial phrase. Think Happy Children, (tm) the pour, the shape of the bottle. That's the Coca Cola meme.
There's also an interesting article about memes in this weeks "New Scientist" (uk magazine, no online link - sorry) that draws parallells between memes and evolved life.
e.g. In a landscape where resources are limited, slightly different species will diverge in order to comandeer variants of a specific resource. This is true for birds looking for food, but it's also true of religions splitting off from each other in order to better grab a unique audience.
I'm going a bit off topic here, so I think I'll stop. If you can, read the article.
posted by seanyboy at 3:46 PM on August 5, 2002

you cain't fool me wid all diss fancy talkin about memes. i knows a bible when i sees one, bubba.
posted by quonsar at 3:49 PM on August 5, 2002

Meme is useful to distinguish from idea in that it tends to be something human-scaled and self-replicating. A meme is an idea, yes, but not all ideas can be successful memes. See alt.memetics resources for some jargon-limited discussion. Advertising slogans may or may not make the leap into memes. Catchphrases typically propagate as memes; so do jokes, urban legends, and fads, including fashion trends. A good meme-pusher will be a good marketer; it's not necessary to advertise by way of memes, but it tends to make your work easier. Branding is an ultimate version of the top-down meme. Zeitgeist, perhaps, is the opposite, a bottom-up meme. An idea is static; a meme is an idea over time, spreading and then dissipating, or becoming embedded.

TBone: It is true that it's often used far too casually; but that doesn't mean it has no precise usage. Here, mrmanley has presented us with some classic discussion points that are very well described by the term.

I would take strong issue with the assertion that visual memes are becoming more effective and text memes losing ground. Most religions spread without widespread literacy; the Bible only became available in local language versions around 8 centuries ago, and the Koran has only recently been widely translated. The difference today is the wider access to communications streams coming from many directions. Religion, once upon a time, was the province of the local churchmaster, tied specifically to a static culture of neighbors. Today we're mobile and connected in a way that would amaze -- does amaze -- people even a generation older, let alone a century or two back. Today, the individual has much more access and many more choices to make; the choice-making chore, and that's what it is, is itself a meme that deeply affects what kind of person we are. Our parents, when going out, might choose between Chinese (chow mein) and Italian (pizza). We choose between Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Afghan, Tex-Mex, "Australian" Steak ... it becomes a burden, as anyone organizing a night out for a small group knows, and the role of the advertising meme here is often to simplify and ease that burden.
posted by dhartung at 5:10 PM on August 5, 2002

TBoneMcCool : Check out the Church Of Virus for some interesting discourse on the subject.

The old text-based memes are only literally text-based; sure, their central idea may center around the worship of a holy text- but these texts are part of a memeplex that invloves a highly visual/aural language and mythology... angels in the heavens, jesus on the cross, the saints, the ritual of eating the blood and flesh of JC, the singing of hymns, Satan and original sin... In the case of christianity, how else could these memes propagate themselves in colonial acquisitions where the natives could not read?

The older religion memes have the advantage of age/long term survival on their side; whereas cunning marketing ploys are disposable, just like their products. I think that being "aggressive" does not exactly ensure survival- in fact, i think it endangers it.

Until products make the grand claim that they are blessed by god/heal you of your sins/promise you life after life etc, the mainstream religions have nothing to worry about. Manufactured memes are benign in this repect eg the cola war is not a real war. :)
posted by elphTeq at 5:55 PM on August 5, 2002

emotional response: It's sad that so much power is attributed to branding; that because a person chooses x, it is because of x s branding memeplex - not because the person has made a personal choice.

Is the world population really this malleable mentally? Are we slaves to marketing? (I work in advertising- too cynical to be affected myself i hope)
posted by elphTeq at 6:08 PM on August 5, 2002

Yes, we are slaves to marketing, and it will be the end of us. Muahahahahhaha!

Well, actually "them". I'm one of the folks who has meme-complexes that enable me to recognize and counteract the tendency to be manipulated by advertising, but anyway.

Talking about memes is rather a shorthand for talking about the transmissability of thoughts and meaning.

But then it seems it's been co-opted by the overly academic knotheads, so the whole concept has been terribly muddied.

Go read The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. He's the guy who coined the term, in that book. Quite fascinating, really.
posted by beth at 6:55 PM on August 5, 2002

I would say that traditional text-based memes are not really text-based at all; rather, they are word based. Linguistic memes, especially those promoting a complex and highly stylized concept, are relatively more difficult to absorb into a population than simpler, visual memes.

Think of the recent ads for Nike shoes: Just Do It. Or Gatorade: Is It In You? We never know precisely what "it" is, and yet the meme propages with astonishing speed. Whatever "it" is, it seems to take hold of young minds with ferocious tenacity. The visuals drive the simple text message home -- "it" is important, vital, and driving. "It" contains the essence of youth. (And, judging by the commercials, "it" causes one to sweat a lot.)

It does seem that text/word-based memes are more persistent, though. Maybe they take root deeper? Think of the greek myths, and how their themes and characters resonate even today. Or the epic of all epics, Gilgamesh.
posted by mrmanley at 7:16 PM on August 5, 2002

Great, interesting thread almost redeems all the semantic shit out there
posted by ParisParamus at 7:25 PM on August 5, 2002

Text-based memes losing ground?

Tell that to Monsieur bin Laden (if he's still alive, that is.)
posted by adamgreenfield at 7:47 PM on August 5, 2002

Memes = religion for nerds.

I can't prove they exist, but the evidence for them is everywhere!
posted by raaka at 8:04 PM on August 5, 2002

'meme' dosn't ryme with 'dream'. WTF?
posted by delmoi at 10:00 PM on August 5, 2002

Of course "meme" rhymes with "dream." Dawkins constructed it by analogy with "gene" so the "e" is long.
posted by kindall at 10:28 PM on August 5, 2002

C'est la meme chose.
posted by vacapinta at 10:55 PM on August 5, 2002

Cherchez la meme.
posted by y2karl at 11:42 PM on August 5, 2002

In my opinion, this sort of interpretation of "memes" (when used in branding, etc.) ruins the debate on whether or not memetics is valid as a scientific or (what I'm most interested in) philosophical theory. Trying to discuss or use memes this way is like understanding genetics by mating a horse with a donkey -- it may be somewhat effective, but you basically miss the point by simplifying the concept to such extremes.

If memetic evolution actually occurs on a large scale -- which it must, if we want even our such simplifications to be valid -- that means that EVERYTHING is a meme. Every idea you have, every word you say, every behaviour that can't be traced to genetic origins. This, of course, would have enormous ramifications on how we think about ourselves, our species and our culture. Unfortunately, simplificaitons like this Adbusters article ignore the elegant and revolutionary quality of the idea, and reduce it to a simple "brainwashing technique", thereby robbing it of its true value and meaning.
posted by tweebiscuit at 11:52 PM on August 5, 2002

All your memes are belong to us.
posted by owillis at 12:45 AM on August 6, 2002

Somehow this thread is perfect: like Mefi 1.5 years ago.
posted by ParisParamus at 3:07 AM on August 6, 2002

My problem with the term meme is that trying to equate cultural phenomena with genetics is forced. Everytime I hear an idea described as a meme it puts my back up, I think because it divorces the idea from the person or society who conceived it. In the case of advertising, fair enough, but in the case of religion, politics, or the arts, to treat the idea like it's a separate, individual entity that's released like a balloon into space seems to be missing the point. It's too neat. It's putting too much emphasis on the idea and not enough on the thinker, if that makes any sense.

Also, people tend to use the word 'meme' when the words 'idea', 'thought' or 'concept' will do just as well and will make more sense to more people. Don't get me started on memeplex. What's that? A book?

I remember reading The Selfish Gene, and the meme idea came at the end, kind of just posited as an idea that may or may not have legs. I thought it was interesting but reductionist. Dawkins distanced himself from it afterwards if I remember correctly. Maybe he's changed his mind since.
posted by Summer at 4:07 AM on August 6, 2002

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