By Henrik Bjarneskans,
Bjarne Grønnevik and Anders Sandberg
Memes, self reproducing
mental information structures analogous to genes in biology, can be seen as
the basis for an explanatory model of cultural and psychological behaviour.
Their properties and effects are evolutionary conditioned and ultimately seeks
to promote their replication. To survive in a context the memes must meet
certain conditions. We abstract a model of these conditions and use it to
analyse three well-known memes: the "Kilroy was here" graffiti, urban legends
1. What is a Meme?
Memes were originally
described by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) 
a unit of cultural
transmission, or a unit of imitation.
What makes the meme concept
so powerful is its close analogies to the theory of natural selection. Natural
selection occurs whenever the following conditions exist (Dennet 1990):
- - -
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways
of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate in the gene pool
via a process which, in the broad sense can be called imitation. If a scientist
hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and
students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures . If the idea catches
on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.
This is a quite general definition
which is not limited to biology, and suggests that memes are subject to natural
selection: they vary (due to "mutations" in transmission or mental storage,
plus deliberate changes), they replicate (by definition) and have differing
fitness. This leads to phenomena of competition, co-evolution, population dynamics
and adaptation surprisingly similar to their biological counterparts. The set
of shared memes form the memepool (in analogy with the genepool).
- Variation: a continuing
abundance of different elements.
- Heredity or replication:
the elements have the capacity of creating copies or replicas of themselves.
- Differential "fitness":
the number of copies of an element that are created in a given time varies,
depending on the interaction between the features of that element (whatever
it is that makes it different from other elements) and features of the environment
in which it persists.
It should be noted that
human decisions are part of the memetic selection process; from the perspective
of the memetic ecology humans and human behaviour corresponds to the climatic
and geological environment of biological life. In the meme perspective, it
is more accurate to say that the message has evolved into its form in order
to encourage people to spread it than to say that people have selected or
'bred' the message into its form.
Although people often
make the decision to spread a meme or not consciously, this process is influenced
by the meme. Some memes are viewed as important, and hence spread to others
after a conscious and sometimes rational evaluation; some memes exploit aspects
of cognition or emotion to bias their hosts to spread them. Natural selection
favours memes that are good at reproducing, which suggests that in time there
will exist many memes that are very efficient replicators. Their accuracy
is irrelevant for their survival, only their ability to replicate and find
new hosts; memes that interest people and encourage them to spread the meme
will thrive at the expense of less attractive versions.
What makes the meme perspective
so interesting is that it suggests that some of what we have learned from
biology can be applied to human psychology. Dawkins points out that "a cultural
trait may have evolved in the way it has simply because it is advantageous
to itself" . Gross (1996) says
The main shift
in thinking that needs to take place is to look at the spread of the legend
not so much from the point of view of the people who propagate the warning,
but from the point of view of the warning itself.
In memetics, ideas are viewed
as almost independent creatures in a symbiotic relationship with human minds
The meme concept is somewhat
slippery to define, and there is an multitude of definitions ranging from the
very wide to the very narrow. The definition of meme we will use in this essay
1.1 Defining Memes
A meme is a (cognitive)
information-structure able to replicate using human hosts and to influence
their behaviour to promote replication.
This is a somewhat strict
definition, since it excludes many structures able to replicate without influencing
host behaviour or using non-human hosts such as chimpanzees, dolphins and computers.
It can be seen as a subset of the more general memes described by Dawkins.
Memes do not only influence
behaviour to promote replication, but many of the most successful memes have
other side-effects (for example, being able to invoke various emotions) or
promote their replication by being useful or through other features (like
parasiting on other memes, e.g. parodies and imitations); using a biological
analogy one could say symbiotic memes spread mainly using their usefulness,
while parasitic memes compel the host to spread them. This compulsion can
be more or less subtle, ranging from explicit orders like in chain letters
("Send ten copies of this letter to your friends") to implicit influences
that link with our attitudes like the "Save the whales" meme described in
(Hofstadter 1985, p. 55).
It is quite common that
memes are confused with ideas/thoughts. Both are cognitive structures, but
an idea is not self-replicating and is spread passively (i.e. for extrinsic
reasons) if it is spread beyond its initial host at all. The difference is
sometimes hazy; the idea "Isn't it time for us to eat?" can easily spread
in a small group, but will not spread well outside the group and will disappear
once the question is settled, while a meme usually can spread generally and
does not have any limited lifespan.
It should also be noted
that memes often form meme complexes, groups of memes mutually supporting
each other and replicating together. The dividing line between a meme and
a meme complex is yet again diffuse. In this text we will not try to distinguish
between the two.
1.2. Issues in Memetics
1.2.1. The Meme - Gene
Much fuss has been made
over this analogy since it was introduced by Dawkins in his "The Selfish Gene".
When Dawkins introduced this analogy it was to give us a meaningful comparison
in the light of which we would better understand the concept of memes. This
was done to help our initial phase of understanding; unfortunately, many
memeticists has not left this area. Many writers have scrutinised the comparison
with the gene to see if it really is analogous or not, i.e. Hans-Cees Speel
(1996). Although this has provided interesting reading we feel that it is a
bit beside the point. The importance of memes lies not in whether they are mental
copies of the genes and obey the same laws as the genes do or don't, but rather
in how they work and what they are capable of (and not capable of). We do not
feel that you can reach a complete understanding of this only by comparing them
to other things. You have to study the idea of memes in it self.
This is why we have chosen
to make a detailed study of what we can call "the memetic life-cycle", to
try to discover its inner memetic workings. Our aim is to find a model that,
whether analogous to the genetic life-cycle or not, is sound and supported
by studies of existing memes.
In the field of memetics
there are a couple of different definitions of "host", "vector" and "meme" around,
and there is a tendency to make these wide to the point of being meaningless.
We want operational definitions that are usable and still distinct. Therefore,
in this paper, we are going to use the words "host" and "vector" as such (meme
has already been defined above):
Host = A host must be
able to possess at least the potential capacity to elaborate on the
meme and to perform those cognitive tasks connected to the meme that we normally
refer to as "understanding". This means that only humans can be hosts (animals
can perhaps become hosts for simpler memes, but we will not discuss this here),
at least until the development of artificial intelligences reaches further.
Vector = A vector is anything
that transports the meme between hosts without the capacity to reflect on
the meme. Examples are a wall, a voice, an email-program, or a picture. Can
a human be a vector? Yes she can, if she lacks the cognitive capacity (or
interest) to elaborate on a specific meme. Then she is just a non-reflective
carrier of the meme, much the same as a book. Note though that the human vector
is still a potential host - or inactive host (Grant, 1990) - for the
meme, should she suddenly choose to analyse the meme (in its widest sense)
or achieve the contextual understanding which would make this possible.
1.2.3. The Conscious
It is worth noting that
although the terminology used in genetics and memetics sometimes seems to indicate
that genes and memes act upon their own conscious will, this is of course not
the case. Genes and memes are not conscious, and they do not have a will as
such to act upon. But it is practical and economical to speak as if they do,
since their behaviour follows such patterns.
This way of speaking can
be seen as lazy shorthand; "a meme wants X" means "the fitness of a meme is
enhanced by X".
2. The Lifecycle of Memes
Memes have a life-cycle
similar to parasites (Fig 1). During the transmission phase of the meme it is
encoded in a vector, such as a spoken message, text, image, email, observed
behaviour or slab of stone. When a potential host decodes the meme (reads the
text, hears the message) the meme may become active and infects the person,
who becomes a new host (the infection phase). At some point the meme is encoded
in a suitable vector (not necessarily the same medium it was originally decoded
from) and can be spread to infect new hosts.
This division of the lifecycle makes it easier to discuss memetic selection
criteria, such as the list proposed by Heylighen (1994):
or other, more elaborate
divisions such as (Hale-Evans 1995).
- Contribution to individual
fitness (how the meme enhances the fitness of its host)
- Reliability of predictions
- Ease of communication
- Tendency to be transmitted
- Conformity pressure
("meme selfishness"; how the meme interacts with other memes in the host)
- Collective fitness
(how the meme enhances the fitness of the group or social system of its
In the following we will
discuss the intrinsic factors of the meme that contributes to its fitness,
and those external factors that mesh with them. We will look at the factors
that help or hinder a meme in each of the phases of its lifecycle as depicted
in Figure 1. These factors will be summarized below in an extended version
of the model (Figure 2).
A successful meme will
be good at exploiting these factors in its environment, while memes that cannot
exploit them well will be out-competed and eventually go extinct. If one phase
presents an insurmountable obstacle to the meme, it will be unable to reproduce
and survive. This allows us to make estimates of memetic viability.
2.1. Transmission Phase
In the transmission phase
the meme is encoded in a vector, some kind of information- carrying medium.
Which medium is used strongly depends on the meme, both how it can be
expressed (influenced by its complexity, the need for copying-fidelity and the
requirements of its semantic form) and how it "wants" to be expressed.
Often the medium is strongly linked with the meme or an actual part of it, as
in the case of the "Kilroy was here" meme where part of the meme is the graffiti
itself, suggesting the possibility of scrawling it on some suitable surface;
"The medium is the message" as Marshall McLuhan put it. Memes are able to shift
between media, sometimes with a mutating effect on the meme (such as the major
differences between the Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo and the
same story told by Disney).
It is interesting to see
how memes and media have co-evolved: many media have been developed as memetic
vectors, able to encode memes indefinitely and with a high degree of exactness,
while memes have evolved to use them and exploit their peculiarities.
Dawkins (1976) suggests
three qualities of a meme that gives it a high survival value: longevity,
fecundity and copying fidelity. Longevity and copying-fidelity are most significant
in the transmission phase (although longevity can also be seen as the meme's
ability to remain in memory for a long time), and are strongly linked with
the properties of the medium. Heylighen (1994) also points out that ease of
communication increases memetic fitness, either through creating salient behaviour
that is easy to imitate or by being able to be clearly expressed.
2.1.1. Reproduction Ability
The more copies of itself
a meme can encode in vectors, the higher fitness does it have (by definition).
This implies that memes would thrive in media where it is easy to make numerous
copies and distribute them widely. From a memetic standpoint, the ideal medium
is a broadcast medium where many copies can be made cheaply. If it is one-to-
many such as radio, then the memes of the broadcaster will spread with little
feedback; this supports a less diverse memetic ecology than a many-to-many network,
but also promotes the memes of the sender more strongly. In a many-to-many medium
such as the Internet there are multiple meme sources, and the memetic diversity
Two typical examples of
the influence of reproduction ability are "xeroxlore" ("You don't have to
be insane to work here, but it helps") that can be found in almost every modern
office thanks to photocopiers, and Internet spams ("Make Money Fast!") that
thrive in the broadcast environment of the Internet; neither meme would be
possible without easy copying.
2.1.2. Copying Fidelity
While mutation leads
to evolution, it also risks to destroy or degrade the meme. Just as in biological
organisms a balance has to exist between evolvability and copying fidelity (Kelly
1994, p. 537). Many memes have properties that enhance their copying fidelity,
often by making errors in encoding noticeable (note the analogy to error-detecting
and -correcting codes cf. (Biggs 1985)).
Some memes explicitly
forbid any alteration of themselves, such as the instructions given in chain
letters, the copyright notices of public domain information (only unaltered
copying is allowed) and many sacred formulae, that warn of awful consequences
if they should be altered. They increase their copying fidelity by making the
host careful in encoding them well.
Cohesiveness may also
improve copying fidelity by introducing patterns that support the copying and
transmission process. Poetry becomes stable by using rhyme and meter, since
mutations create obvious errors that can be corrected. Many memes contain noteworthy
features such as humour, commonly known symbols or repetition (cf. the common
use of groups of three in myths). Incidentally, these properties also make memory
encoding and retrieval easier.
Another way of achieving
high copying fidelity and a low mutation rate is simplicity. A short meme is
less likely to be changed, and may even be "brittle" ?any change makes it obviously
unusable to the encoder, and thus prevents mutation. Longer or larger memes
can survive only in media with high copying fidelity and low copying costs.
A fourth way of achieving
a low mutation rate in the vector form is to concentrate on making potential
hosts understand the meme, not to ensure perfect copying fidelity (which may
not be possible in some media, such as the spoken word). By repeated exposure,
a potential host will not only recreate the meme from possibly distorted encodings,
but also be more likely to become infected. This is an especially useful strategy
for meme complexes, large memes and memes with high abstractability since they
can (and often must) be transmitted piecemeal.
The meme has to be able
to survive in the medium, and the medium itself has to survive. Memes that can
be encoded in durable vectors such as books, great art or major myths can spread
almost unchanged for millennia, while memes encoded in ephemeral vectors such
as the spoken word have to spread from host to host quickly and are also more
likely to mutate into new variants.
Some memes can be encoded
in a large variety of vectors, while others are fixed in a single medium. Canonical
examples are funny stories, which can be spoken, acted, written or drawn, and
graffiti, which is its own vector.
A meme that can pass from
one medium to another can spread more easily and change into forms more able
to infect new hosts, but is of course more sensitive to mutations. One strategy
that works well together with high abstractability is the understanding- repeated
exposure strategy, since it decreases the mutation rate and partially relies
on the abstractability of the meme.
Finally, a meme must
ensure that its vector is possible to decode for new potential hosts. Most artificial
media used for information and meme storage are intended to be easy to decode
(Dawkins would say there is a memetic selection effect here: the memes of creating
media that have low decodability would not be replicated as much as the memes
of creating high-decodability media, which would tend to dominate), but many
natural media such as behaviour are not necessarily easy to decode. Observed
behaviour can be viewed as a medium of meme transmission; this is essentially
social learning theory (Bandura 1977) restated in a memetic framework. Many
behaviours (e.g. gestures such as applauding) are learned this way with no verbal
explanation even at an early age and reinforced through positive feedback.
A classic example of behaviour
transmission (although somewhat outside our strict definition of memes) is
the spread of food-washing observed among Japanese monkeys: in 1952 monkeys
on the island Koshima were given sweet potatoes by researchers. The potatoes
were left on the beach, and while the monkeys enjoyed the food they disliked
the sand. One monkey, 18-month Ima, found that she could get rid of the sand
by washing the potatoes in a stream or the sea. Other monkeys observed her
behaviour and repeated it as they found that it had positive results, until
after a few years practically all monkeys except the oldest washed their food
It should be noted that
some memes increase their fitness by making decoding harder . Belonging
to an exclusive group increases self-esteem; memes that can only be decoded
by some hosts will thus provide them with a feeling of superiority (whose
strength depends on the exclusiveness of the meme and other factors) and thus
gain a certain infective advantage. The popularity of secret languages among
children and secret orders among the upper classes demonstrate this.
A hard-to-decode meme
requires more mental activity to decode, which makes infection more likely
if the salient aspects of the meme can be reasonably sure to be decoded in
the process, and suggests (through cognitive dissonance) a higher value of
the meme. If the meme can also be interpreted in several or arbitrary ways,
it is also more likely that potential hosts settle for interpretations that
fits their attitudes the best. An example of this class of meme is alchemical
writings, which are heavily cloaked in symbolism and riddles: the bait is
the promise of powerful knowledge (which doesn't have to be delivered if the
riddles are hard enough), the meme itself is the symbolical language of alchemy
and the hook that leads to transmission is the self-enhancing feeling of spreading
esoteric wisdom to the select few who can understand it.
Decoding is when a potential
host interprets and restructures the information pattern of the meme in the
vector by perceiving and understanding, and thus creates a mental copy of the
meme. In other words, if a meme is to infect a host, it must first be perceived
by the host, then decoded to fit the host's schemata. The possibility of infection
arises after decoding. Many of these decoding processes are automatic and/or
If the host is incapable
of understanding the meme or even incapable of perceiving it in the form in
which it is being transmitted, the meme will not proceed to the infection phase.
Memes that in some way promote their perception, by being encoded in a noticeable
vector, by containing strong emotional content or otherwise arouse interest
will have an increased likelihood of infecting the host.
Understanding is in this
case not limited to conscious understanding, as in the case of copying a popular
fashion, neither is it always necessary that the host acquires a complete
and correct understanding of the meme (see the "Kilroy was here" example)
if it can later be fully decoded using the repetition strategy.
2.2.2. Pro- and Contra-memes
There is a possibility
that the potential host is infected by memes with the function of counteracting
or helping the current meme. Such memes are often symbiotic parts of larger
meme-complexes, with the function of indirectly promoting itself trough the
promotion of its meme-complex. A typical example is religions, which promotes
trust in the teachings of the religious authorities (pro-memes) and often contain
memes denouncing competing religions as heresy (contra-memes).
Contra-memes act by making
their hosts automatically reject memes that do not fit the dominant cognitive
structures. Often they act by creating a strong emotional response or attributing
negative traits to the meme (knee-jerk reactions). In the same way pro- memes
create positive attributions of certain memes and ease their assimilation.
2.3. Infection Phase
After successful decoding
the meme becomes part of the host's mental structures, and this is called infection.
A person who does not remember a meme at all is not infected. A person that
does remember a meme but who's behaviour is not affected has thus become a human
vector. A person whose behaviour is affected by a meme has been actively infected
and can potentially transmit it to other hosts.
The following factors
will influence whether an active infection will occur or not.
2.3.1. Ability to Fit
The meme must fit into
the present schemata of the host to be seriously considered. A meme that assumes
that God exists will probably not be successful in the mind of an atheist. To
convince this person, an extensive set of pro-memes would have to be successful
in infecting the atheist, thus reconfiguring the cognitive structures of its
host to that of a religious person.
2.3.2. Threat / Bait
Most memes use threats
or temptations to make the host accept the meme. If the meme appears to provide
an advantage over previous memes, it can replace them (but it should be noted
that older memes may have infiltrated the motivation structure of the host,
making her unwilling to switch views anyway). Threats are even more potent,
since potential risks are evaluated more strongly than potential gains (Kahneman
and Tversky 1982), which means that a threatening meme often can out-compete
a tempting meme.
Often threats and baits
are combined to further enhance the meme. Many religions use this in propagating
themselves, promising the faithless a hot afterlife (threatening) and the
faithful a fluffy and light one (tempting).
If a meme is to be spread
by a host for a long time, the host must remember the meme. If a host is infected
and later forgets the meme and/or stops acting out the new behaviour before
the host has spread the meme on, the host has not done the meme any more good
than if the host had not been infected in the first place. Thus successful memes
encourage permanent or long-lasting changes in the host. Note that it is not
necessary for the hosts to remember the meme itself, just change their behaviours
in a way that will promote the spread of the (reconstructed) meme.
This can be achieved in
If the meme can be assimilated
into existing schemata, it will be supported by them. If the meme can somehow
force an accommodation, it will have even better chances of becoming a vital
part of a long-lasting mental structure (and this also gives it an excellent
position from which to act as a contra- or pro-meme).
Something that a host
actively thinks about is less likely to be forgotten, and also more likely to
influence behaviour. Thus memes that encourage thinking or fantasising about
themselves or related concepts have increased chances of survival. Rituals and
ceremony are often powerful reminders of the meme.
2.3.3.c. External storage
Since human memory tends
to be rather uncertain, external memory aids can also aid memes greatly not
just as vectors, but as memory feedback.
If a host is infected
by a scientific meme-complex he will be encouraged to read books relating
to the meme complex. The host becomes likely to learn more and more about
the theories rather than forgetting parts of them, and should he forget something
relevant he can look it up again, the books can serve as memory feedback loops
and also act as vectors for other parts of the meme-complex causing further
2.3.4. Storage Time
The longer a meme infects
its host, the more chances it has to be spread on to other potential hosts,
but there is also an increased risk of mutation. Some memes have limited lifetimes
determined by outside factors, such as millennial memes ("The world will be
destroyed on Tuesday!") whose fitness decrease significantly after a set date
(but before that date gain in fitness by being actual and urgent). There are
examples of computer viruses that destroy themselves after a predefined goal,
like making X copies of itself or residing for X days in the computer (Dawkins
1993), which are surprisingly similar to the instructions of chain letters ?after
making the copies and sending them, the host is no longer instructed to spread
Survival of the meme
depend upon whether or not the meme can handle or use the following problems
in the host mind:
2.3.5.a. External Contra-Memes
An infection may be subject
to contra-memes, trying to "cure" the infection after it has become active,
as opposed to a contra-memes struggle to prevent an infection in the decoding
phase. A contra-meme does not have to be specifically directed towards its counterpart,
it only has to counteract the intention of its counterpart. Survival requires
a meme to withstand their attacks. Many obviously false but firmly believed
memes can be surprisingly tenacious in the face of opposing evidence (Gross
If a meme can make the
host assimilate or accommodate contra-schemata to protect itself, it is less
likely to have to deal with external contra-memes or competitors. The meme complex
of atheism is likely to give its host a defence against any religious meme complex.
This defence is practically an immunity since a convinced atheist wont even
consider listening to a religious host with an open attitude. The opposite seems
to apply too.
If the meme is widely
enough defined, or is a generally accepted concept, it can assimilate all other
memes because it is more general and can be used as a context which can explain
all necessary functions. Many religions claim to explain the worlds creation
and other phenomena better than modern science.
2.4. Encoding and Spread
The meme must replicate
itself if it wants to be successful, that is, to spread to and infect more hosts.
Quantity is important for some memes in order to survive, especially weak memes
which do not occupy the ideosphere (the universe of ideas, an analogy of the
biosphere (Monod 1970)) of their host for long since they are easily forgotten.
As a reaction they try to infect as many hosts in as little time as possible.
A typical example of this is chain-letters.
Other memes have a more
targeted area of hosts. The target hosts are the only ones necessary for the
survival of the meme, but they are on the other hand crucial. This kind of
meme is often evolved to survive better in a single host over time than the
quality- oriented one, since the spreading of this second meme type often
involves a more complex and time-consuming infection process (as in religion).
2.4.1. Hooks and motivation
A host doesn't start
to spread a particular meme all by herself. She has to be motivated. To this
extent, memes have a particular trait, or a co-meme, called a hook. The
hook is what encourages the host to spread the meme. A common hook relies on
humans altruism. It works like this (after Hofstadter 1985, p. 55):
I (the host) don't want any harm to befall my friends.
Another type of hook is of
course the opposite, the threat directed towards the host. This is an efficient
tool not only for spreading, but works also to minimise mutation ("You will
be tormented if you misread the doctrine") and to guarantee a firm place in
the host's ideosphere ("You will be tormented if you lose faith").
MEME HOOK: "Anyone who
doesn't believe in this doctrine will be tormented in the afterlife."
the doctrine is true, and since the premise is true, I will make sure that
my friends starts to believe in the doctrine .
Naturally, all hooks aren't
as elaborate as the ones above. These types are normally found in the larger
meme complexes. But singular memes are equipped with the hook co-meme too.
Take, for instance, the joke. Why do you tell a joke? Maybe because you want
to make people happy, and/or you want to be appreciated or popular. The hook
for telling - and spreading - a joke would then be something like this:
MEME HOOK: "If
you tell people something funny they will be happy and they will appreciate
Hopefully, this is enough
to motivate you to start spreading the meme. A hook should obviously not contradict
common sense and in a meme complex it should ultimately feel like a natural
extension of the meme complex. This is to make sure the hook is easily, and
preferably automatically, activated. A complicated hook that demands a lot of
conscious elaboration in order to be activated has doomed the meme by inhibiting
the possibilities of swift reproduction.
Note that the above-mentioned
meme hook is not married to a particular joke. Rather, it is implicit in the
hosts disposition towards jokes in general. Whereas the hook for, say, a chain
letter is explicit and tells you what to with this particular letter and this
Another important determinant
in how successful the spreading of a particular meme will be is the feedback.
This includes direct as well as indirect feedback.
Direct feedback is the
immediate response you get when trying to spread the meme. Did the new host
get infected (Did she laugh at you joke)? Was the vector you chose a satisfying
medium? Indirect feedback concerns matters such as how often you recognise
the meme in different media and whether it seems like a lot of people inhabit
the meme (and thereby strengthen your own belief in it). In other words, indirect
feedback is your recognition of the spreading meme apart from your own participation
in the process. You can naturally recognise some indirect feedback as being
partly a result of your own reproduction of the meme, but only in the sense
of your meme spreading being part of a larger meme-spreading complex. If your
actions are the exclusive producer of the feedback, then the feedback is always
Positive feedback strengthens
the belief in the meme and encourages the spread, whether negative feedback
works in the opposite direction. Strong enough negative feedback can actually
kill the meme in the original host, if the meme is not equipped to handle
a situation like that. Successful memeplexes are well prepared, e.g. the religious
defence "If they don't believe you they work for the devil, and you should
avoid further contact.". But for smaller memes, negative feedback often proves
to be fatal. This is what happens when we say that a joke "wears out", we
start to receive negative feedback because everybody is tired of the joke
and eventually we stop telling it.
2.4.3. Survival through
As always, it is important
for the meme to mutate as little as possible. But reproduction must also be
as easy as possible. An optimal vector should satisfy both these needs. The
Torah is an example of minimal mutation but extremely low reproduction rate.
The rabbis were forced to copy the original by hand, page by page, letter by
letter. If one letter got wrong they had to do the page all over again (Eco
1988, p. 569). Gutenberg changed all that, and today the printed word is one
of our most common vectors.
Another element which
enhances the meme's possibilities is whether it survives a transition from
one media to another. Of course, this flexibility also enhances the risk for
mutation. One might think that memes lie dormant while in vectors, but this
is not necessarily so. With the advent of television and more interactive
types of media, not to mention the Internet, the meme have got the possibility
to shape its vectors to the extent that the media becomes the message, to
paraphrase McLuhan. Examples of this are the various cyberchurches which exist
only on the Internet and preaches technosophy, which aims to foster a spiritual
appreciation for technology (Wright, 1996).
2.5. Summary of Model
In order to stay successful
and reproductive, the meme has to complete the described cycle over and over
again - preferably with as little mutation as possible (unless mutation is one
of its particular characteristics, as in the example of urban legends, below).
The meme will die if it is unable to complete the cycle.
Our ambition it writing
this paper has been to analyse the obstacles and ordeals which the meme has
to face in its life-cycle, and to get an understanding of its workings. The
result is summarised in fig. 2.
To show how
this cycle applies in real life, we will now end this study by analysing three
different well-known memes or meme complexes. While reading the examples,
use fig. 2 as a tool to see the different phases.
3. Three Illuminating
3.1. The "Kilroy Was
This meme originated
during the second world war, when wharf inspector James. J. Kilroy of Quincey,
Massachusetts used the slogan "Kilroy was here" to mark products he had tested
and approved. The marked products appeared on many battlefields, and the signature
that seemed to appear just about everywhere caught the imagination of many soldiers,
who began to copy it on just about any writable surface (Funk 1950). Most likely
others were intrigued by the slogan that appeared in unlikely places, so they
copied it further to spread the myth.
While the meme spread
well for several decades, it eventually went all but extinct in its active
form. There seems to be several reasons for this:
- Competition from other
forms of graffiti, with stronger ties to subcultures.
- The ageing of the most
highly infected population. Since the tendency to scrawl graffiti is highly
age-dependent, it seems to be likely that as the original cohort aged, they
did not reproduce the meme as often as before, and the original context
was gradually lost.
- A lack of novelty.
Practically all people have been exposed to the meme, but part of its appeal
was the surprise effect of a well placed "Kilroy was here" scrawl; once
it has been seen and understood enough, the novelty wears off. A bit paradoxally,
the meta-meme of knowing about the Kilroy meme inhibits the further spread
of the Kilroy meme, which makes it in fact a contra-meme to the Kilroy meme.
This is why today, such a large body of people have knowledge about the
meme, i.e. the meta-memetical level, without actually being infected by
the original meme (otherwise it would still appear on the city walls).
3.1.1. Properties of
"Kilroy was here" is
extremely well suited for the transmission phase, where it is encoded in a graffiti
It is very easy to reproduce,
and due to its brevity the copying fidelity can be very high. Its decodability
is also high, since after the second world war English became a lingua franca
over a large part of the world and acquired a certain status. The meme was
spread by English-speaking hosts, and would thus tend to end up in areas where
English was understood at least by a part of the population.
The survival of graffiti
is highly variable, but by its nature it is semi-permanent and intended to
be highly visible, which ensures that more potential hosts notices it.
It is uncertain how well
"Kilroy was here" can be abstracted. In its original form, the graffiti vector
was an integral part of the meme and crucial to hint at that it should be
reproduced. Later variants appeared, such as a cartoon figure and stickers,
but they do not appear to have been as fertile, mostly because they were harder
The meme's intimate connection
to its vector, e.g. walls, made it poorly fit to survive in other media. Also,
the meme was very sensitive for mutations. It was enough that you changed
one of its smallest parts, a letter, to seriously damage the meme.
It is of great help to
understand this phrase, that is to know what the English words mean together.
The problem of decoding the sentence is quite an easy one, but it is harder
to decode what it really means. This is probably one of its strengths.
One can find ones own explanation of its meaning. Further more it is small
and simple. During a time when the meme is popular, the host also gets multiple
chances to try to decode it.
Since the meme is without
obvious meaning it is hard to contradict, so there should be no active defence
against the meme. The meaninglessness of it can also invoke wandering thoughts
about the meme, and actively elaborating is connected with better remembering.
What motivated people
to spread the "Kilroy was here" meme? There was never any direct host-to-host
contact in the case of this meme. This meant that no host received a direct
positive feedback, which is a powerful reproduction booster. And there was
no obvious hook accompanying the meme.
This is one of the great
meme mysteries. Perhaps that was enough motivation to spread the meme, to
become part of the mystery - and also, in the beginning, to share the joke
of who this much-talked-about Kilroy character was. Thus, the host created
a bond with a community of Kilroy writers, most of which she would never meet,
but could still belong to. A feeling of belonging may have served as a hook
to motivate the conscious spread of the meme.
The Kilroy writers only
way of confirming that there were others was the indirect feedback, but this
is also the point. The Kilroy writers became invisible, even before each other,
so that the meme seemed to live its own life mysteriously reproducing on the
walls and the writers themselves could feel as privileged members of a mysterious
3.2. Urban Legends
Urban legends have been
described (alt.folklore.urban FAQ) as stories that:
and spreads spontaneously in various forms.
The first property suggests
that they are memes, able to mutate and spreading with no link to the original
creator (although some urban legends attribute the story to some proper authority
to gain some measure of credibility; cf. Gross (1996)). The second property
in part together with the third explain why they are replicated: they fill a
psychological need for entertainment, emotion, reinforcement of attitudes and
attention for the storyteller.
Contains elements of
humour or horror (the horror often "punishes" someone who flouts society's
Makes good storytelling.
There has been much discussion
about the links between traditional storytelling, urban legends, memorats
rumours. Generally urban legends are apparently realistic stories but actually
have a stylised content, with a simple plot which is often very visual and
easily remembered and told (af Klintberg 1978, pp. 154). This contrasts to
rumours, which are short (often just a simple statement with additional information)
and lack epic structure. Both urban legends and rumours can be viewed as ways
of spreading information in situations without official information and by
releasing the tension of social uncertainty (Mullen 1972).
It is likely that rumours
may evolve into urban legends. The classic study The Psychology of Rumour
by Allport and Postman (1947) suggests that a rumour will become more
stylised during spreading. This may be partially the result of the experimental
set-up, which is based on unilinear spread; in collective spread variations
tends to appear (Peterson and Gist 1951). These results are predicted by memetic
theory: in an unilinear spreading situation only transmission ability will
be relevant (since the number of hosts are small), while in a collective situation
the increased number of transmissions will also lead to mutation and variation.
Once a rumour or memorat taps into a good epic form due to a mutation or a
deliberate change its spread will be highly enhanced, and it becomes an urban
myth which will spread fast.
3.2.1. Properties of
Urban legends are usually
transmitted as oral tradition; different legends thrive in different social
groups. The mutation frequency is rather high due to the oral spread, but this
is counteracted by comparatively simple and strong storylines which can be elaborated
in various ways, often based on strongly interesting subjects such as sex, death,
the supernatural and embarrassment. The subjects all tend to promote listener
interest and hence replication.
To be accepted as anything
other than a joke or pure horror story the legends need some measure of plausibility;
often this is provided by referring to apparently real people and institutions
(Gross 1996), the story shows that the people involved are "normal" people
or a real "friend of a friend" (thus extending the storyteller's credibility
indirectly to the presumed source).
Another reason to accept
or remember the story is by hearing it from several independent sources; this
appears to confirm its veracity, and minor inconsistencies can be explained
away as being errors in re-telling.
Memetic theory predicts
that legends that fit in well with the social schemata and attitudes of their
hosts will have a higher fitness than legends that do not conform, and this
seems to be supported by the changes that occur in urban legends over time.
Some urban legends have survived for many decades, changing to fit in with
changes in popular attitude or society. The myths about people being drugged
in subways originally involved white slave trade, but today warn of dealers
seeking to make more people dependent on drugs.
Bengt af Klintberg points
out (1978, pp. 153) that it is possible to partially classify urban myths
by the way they spread. Many spread in the characteristic way of rumours:
an exponential spread until saturation followed by a die-back (sometimes caused
by an official denial). The same rumour or urban myth can recur in other places
with a similar way of spreading; in a surprising number of cases newspapers
acts as vectors. Note the similarity to epidemics. These urban myths often
deal with things relating to the listener's life, something that he or she
could experience. But there are also urban legends that spread in a less explosive
manner. Their contents are less likely to be experienced by the listener,
and are told more as entertainment than actual events. Typical examples are
the horror stories told by teenagers (af Klintberg 1978, pp. 181).
To survive memetically
the legends do not need to be believed, since they provide other incentives
for being told, but if the storyteller believes in the legend its spread and
credibility will be enhanced and can be motivated even if it lacks obvious
entertainment value. This may explain the difference between the fast- and
Another important factor
is that believable legends involve the listeners much more by suggesting they
could be the victims of the story; in the case of potential dangers (such
as the "rat in the pizza" stories) there is an incentive of remembering the
danger and passing on the knowledge.
Religions represent some
of the most powerful and elaborate meme complexes in existence today; they have
evolved over millennia into countless variants and co- evolved with cultures.
Making a complete memetic analysis of even a single religion is beyond the scope
of this paper, so by necessity the following discussion will be rather general.
Religions tend to consist
of some basic core memes (in the case of Christianity the belief in God and
salvation through Christ) surrounded by symbiotic doctrinary memes (how salvation
can be reached, ethical systems, the cosmology) and then an immense cloud
of related memes (religious stories, doctrines, interpretations). These memes
form a symbiotic whole; the core memes need symbiotic memes to provide hooks
and baits, and the symbiotic memes reinforce each other and are given legitimacy
by the core memes.
3.3.1. Properties of
The Christianity meme
complex has throughout history been transmitted in a multitude of forms: as
oral stories, through books and art, through example and through upbringing.
Due to its complexity the transmission takes time and is closely linked to cultural
understanding. This either requires a relatively concentrated effort to transmit
the complex (mission) or to spread it by cultural diffusion and imitation (upbringing).
A frequent diffusion situation is when a child is brought up in a Christian
home. The Christian meme complex is presented as the truth about how the world
functions. Variants of the meme have increased their fitness by encouraging
a high rate of reproduction and cultural transmission (Lynch 1996).
Most major religions rely
on active transmission: one or more hosts actively supports the spread of
the meme, often in an interactive and deliberate way. Efficient methods for
mission have co-evolved with the religion and the situation; the best missionaries
gained the most converts, among which were the next generation of missionaries
(and missionary teachers) who would learn and spread some of their best methods.
have used the bait of salvation (freedom from fear, personal happiness and
prosperity, spiritual fulfilment, eternal life or union with God have all
been promoted at various time) combined with the threat of damnation to promote
interest and infection. This is however just the explicit bait, it appears
likely that many Christian movements have been spread by implicit factors
such as a sense of belonging, social conformity and a consistent world-view.
It is worth noting that the baits and threats are mostly based on the symbiotic
memes and not the core memes of the complex, which means their relative prevalence
can change to fit the situation (for example the ratio of hellfire threats
to salvation baits used in sermons) or they can evolve while leaving the core
Religions are often better
than other meme complexes (such as science) at explaining how the world works
on an emotional level. They provide answers to existential questions that
are emotionally appealing, creating a satisfying world model (which then becomes
intellectually satisfying regardless of its consistency due to cognitive dissonance).
Because religions seldom try to empirically prove themselves they cannot be
disproved, which further aids their stability. A religion can spread regardless
of the truth or falsity of its claims.
The Christianity meme
contains an entire world-view, and seeks to cause an accommodation in the
schemata of the infected host; no other memes are allowed to influence high-level
planning and behaviour ("Ye cannot serve God and Mammon", Matthew 24). This
is achieved by rejecting such memes or impulses as 'against God's will', 'sinful'
Like all the other major
world religions, Christianity has a strong mission. It both exists as an explicit
missionary order and in the form of an implicit altruistic hook (see the section
about hooks and motivation). Christians are urged to set good examples to
others, which also increases the likelihood of transmission through social
The memetic approach
is a tool that helps us to understand certain aspects of human behaviour. As
with all tools, it is not necessarily the best solution at all times. That is
why we equip ourselves with a lot of different psychological analytical instruments,
so we will be able to choose an efficient approach for each different setting.
Critics of memetics complain
about the danger of transforming everything into memes and memetics, feeling
that it somehow reduces the importance of the human mind and places focus
elsewhere. While some memeticists tend to go overboard with explaining everything
in terms of memes, the same could be said about researchers in the fields
of psychoanalysis, cognitive science or sociobiology. The importance lies
in realising that psychology is full of more or less fit different explanatory
perspectives, and memetics is just one of them. But by memetics you can often
explain very complex cognitive structures and/or social psychological phenomenon
(like Christianity) in a very general, no-nonsense way without having to entangle
yourself in a web of unnecessarily complex theories.
Before our paper ends,
we will inform you of our until now secret sub-goal with this paper. It is
our intention that by now you, by reading this text, has been infected with
one of the strongest memes on the planet: The Meta-Meme, e.g. the meme about
the theory of memes. It is our sincere hope that you will tell your friends
about this (yes, transmission and further infection) or maybe even let them
read this paper. In either case, unless you carry a very strong vaccime (se
appendix), we have made you a host. And you didn't even flinch. You should
be lucky we are not after your money...
- It should be noted
that the idea of self-replicating ideas and their evolutionary struggles
had come up before in the writings of R. Sperry (1965) and J. Monod (1970).
- It is interesting to
note that the real story eventually became a basis for a common urban legend,
the "100th monkey effect": once 100 monkeys knew how to wash their food
the ability suddenly became widespread among the monkeys, even outside Koshima.
This claim was originally made in the 1979 book Lifetide by Lyall Watson
where the author made up the story; since then it has become common myth
in the peace and environmental movements (Amundson 1987). Compare this to
the section about the evolution of urban legends.
- Stories relating real
personal experiences, which are interpreted through the collective tradition
but lack the fixed intrigue of legends. The term was introduced during the
1930's by C.W. von Sydow. (af Klintberg 1978, pp. 152)
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