[Paleopsych] NYT: Critic's Notebook: Buzzing the Web on a Meme Machine
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Wed Oct 27 14:58:25 UTC 2004
Critic's Notebook: Buzzing the Web on a Meme Machine
NYT October 26, 2004
By SARAH BOXER
The Web is obsessed with anything that spreads, whether
it's a virus, a blog or a rumor. And so the Internet loves
Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in his 1976 book, "The
Selfish Gene." Memes (the word rhymes with dreams and is
short for mimemes, from the word mimetic) are infectious
ideas or any other things that spread by imitation from
person to person - a jingle, a joke, a fashion, the smiley
face or the concept of hell. Memes propagate from brain to
brain much as genes spread from body to body. Thus, Mr.
Dawkins wrote, they really "should be regarded as living
structures, not just metaphorically but technically."
The World Wide Web is the perfect Petri dish for memes.
Wikipedia, the free collaborative online encyclopedia,
calls the Internet "the ultimate meme vector."
Meme and memetics (the study of memes, not to be confused
with mimetics) were once terms batted around only by
thinkers like Mr. Dawkins, the philosopher Daniel Dennett
and Susan Blackmore, the author of "The Meme Machine." Now
the word "meme" is part of many would-be-trendy Web
A site called memes.org says it tests "new, old and
emergent memes that are either being flown as a trial
balloon or are sweeping the memesphere, the mediasphere or
the buzzsphere.'' In fact much of the site is a grab bag of
blogs, quotes and theories about politics and culture.
Another Web site, iampariah.com, advertises a meme list
that turns out to be just a dispensary of lame topics for
Other Web sites, without blaring it in their addresses,
track certain types of memes. Vmyths.com follows popular
hoaxes and myths about computer viruses that propagate on
the Web. Snopes.com is a clearinghouse of urban legends.
Here you can see whether various rumors are true or not.
Was Harlan Ellison fired from Disney for joking about an
animated porn film? Yes. Can Michael Jackson's phone number
be found in the bar code on his "Thriller" album? No.
Streetmemes.com, sponsored by Eyebeam, an art and
technology center in Manhattan, tracks any "sticker,
stencil or poster that can spread a single image around the
world." At this Web site you can browse a selection of
easy-to-spread street graphics or add your own.
The problem is that many of the street memes posted are not
really memes at all. For example, the site posts only one
instance of "Business Yo," the figure of a beaten-down
businessman stenciled in black on a yellow ground with a
rain cloud over his head. Maybe the image could spread on
the street, but it hasn't yet. It's a meme wanna-be.
Can a wanna-be meme become a real meme? People on the Web
are doggedly pursuing this very question right now.
One Web site, Quotesexchange.com, offers to help make your
blogs more visible - that is, to turn them into memes.
"Let's help the smaller blogs get more visibility!" the
site says, and it even ventures a hypothesis as to why some
blogs are ignored. It's not because they're boring. No.
"The reason is that the smaller blogs don't have enough
links pointing to them."
To remedy this, the site recommends something that sounds
suspiciously like chain-letter tactics. You, the neglected
blogger, simply post your blog along with a string of
addresses of popular sites, adding your own to the end. "As
the meme spreads onwards from your blog, so will your URL,"
the site promises. Soon it will appear near the top of
In other words, you add some meme gas to your blog to help
it spread through the culture. The non-meme that has been
given meme fuel is called a GoMeme. This is the invention
of Nova Spivack, who runs a Web site called
mindingtheplanet .net. The unintended model here seems to
be Sylvester McMonkey McBean, the Dr. Seuss character who
invented a machine to put stars on the bellies of
Mr. Spivack has made four versions of the GoMeme - partly,
to test how real memes, natural memes, spread. At least one
site has analyzed the results of the various GoMemes that
Mr. Spivack has tested. On nodalpoint.org you can read
"Analysis of an Artificial Meme." The conclusion? "The
GoMeme experiment did not help elucidate any useful
properties of a meme."
Can the spread of memes be stopped? At memecentral.com, run
by Richard Brodie, the author of "Virus of the Mind: The
New Science of the Meme," visitors learn how to recognize
and resist mind viruses - not to be confused with Internet
viruses. "These messages all have one thing in common: they
contain compelling messages or memes that grab our
attention and persuade us to pass them on."
The idea of the meme has, itself, become a meme. Spread the
Some of the Web sites offering information on memes:
What sound does the liberal make? Mo__.
What sound does the conservative make? Mo__.
What sound does the cow make? Mo__.
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