Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Memes, an Introduction

The term meme was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his seminal book “The Selfish Gene” [amazon link] and has been explored by numerous scientists and hackers alike in an attempt to discover if memes are more than just a conceptual model for ideas. Memes apparently aren’t hard to catch — but the definition of one can be elusive. When Richard Dawkins coined the term he was examining how genes use species to propagate themselves and during his exploration of this thesis he discussed replicators. A replicator is an object that has the ability to copy itself. Dawkins pointed to genes as one kind of replicator and some computer programs that also have an ability to replicate. He postulated that ideas match the requirements for being a replicator, namely that they copied themselves from one individual to another.

After that, meme became almost synonomous with the idea of trends and often trends on the internet. Google’s Zeitgiest often shows through search keywords what particular ideas and concepts are “hottest” on the web at any given time. With the advent of blogging, several sites have also popped up (blogdex, daypop) that track what bloggers are linking to and what the hottest topics are. But do trends, catchphrases and blogging topis really constitute memes?

Some scientists point out that it would be difficult to think that memes are something that can transmute from an idea in a brain to an artifact and back to an idea in another mind. That there is a meme in either mind seems clear, but how can a replicator use the body to (through speech or visual arts) communicate that meme. And more importantly, are memes really the exact same concept from mind to mind — surely individual experience differentiates what precisely any meme could be in terms of structure. For instance, if we both think of a bench, we’re not likely thinking of the same one. There are likely contrasting colors, sizes and even locales for the benches we are thinking of. But there is a core idea of bench beyond these perceptions because we know many things can be non-benches. Does this mean that there is a common denominator concept that is the meme for bench?

Other scientists, like Robert Aunger [amazon link] in “The Electric Meme” have attempted to look at what a meme might be considered to be in terms of what physically occurs in the brain. Is a meme a series of nuerons fired in a certain order? A chain of firings?

Largely though, for the moment, memes are base concepts (atomic concepts?) that seem to travel through the social consciousness with some amount of velocity — some faster than others. In the next memetics entry I’m going to explore a recent development of a meme and see if we can’t whiddle away some of the flotsam surrounding this concept. [update 2-8-05: I found the recent occurrence of a meme and attempted to trace it.]

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