Default Settings -- dangers in taking what's given you
I’ve just signed onto a new service, or bought a new laptop. What’s the first things I do? I customize. This isn’t “the norm”. Most people do not customize their system, or even know it’s possible. They do not know this is possible in their life nor in their technology. All systems translate across to other systems. This costs people the true expression of themselves, but the real danger pertains to infection. Viral codes (memetic, genetic, computer) succeed and breed using generalities. A virus that tries to attack a custom system, because “custom” is not “the norm”, has difficulty spreading. This is because a virus is successful on how far it can spread, and that REQUIRES that a virus targets general systems—“the norm”; averages. It is those systems operating on “default settings” that a successful virus attacks. What thought form memes are infecting us right now because we are operating on “default settings” given to us by our culture?
Fractal Branching is Universal
Nature is full of recurring patterns. Trees and rivers and lightning streaking down the sky share a structural similarity, a base form that branches off into smaller copies of itself.
You can’t see it visually (except in diagrams), but natural selection is the exact same fractal pattern.
And so is memetics: ideas branch into mutated copies of themselves.
Fractal branching is universal. Whether we’re talking about matter or ideas, we are bathing in the same river.
The Decline Of Participatory Memes
2012 was a bad year for memes. Even if you didn’t think about it you probably noticed it.
But this isn’t just because there was nothing new, or because 9gag consolidated its position as the place everyone goes to for “lulz” now. So listen up, all y’alls in the meme tag posting rage comics and Spurdo Spärde or whatever it is you kids like these days. There might actually be a threat to your online lifestyle.
Here’s one of the more accurate-seeming lists I can find of the top 10 memes of 2012:
The first thing that’s going to jump out, if you’re a fan of old memes at all, is the unfunny. I mean, the first two have nothing inherently humorous about them at all - they’re just structures on which to organize “humorous” observations about daily life.
That said, there wasn’t that much “inherently” humorous about a lot of old memes, like your average Rickroll or what have you. The thing about old memes was that a lot of them in a way were really experimental. They pushed the boundaries not only of what was funny but of what funny was. They didn’t depend on a “joke” so much as on context, shock, randomness, absurdity, defamiliarization, repetition. They were their own art form. And on a deep level, they only worked on the internet.
Comparatively, new memes like your average “Shit People Say” vid don’t do anything stand-up comedy doesn’t. It’s just the same old jokes in a virally replicating structure.
But these are my personal tastes. (Mixed in with a fair bit of nostalgia.) People like Rage comics, Bad Luck Brian, What People Think I Do, even those fucking four-panel Facebook things. That’s fine and it’s their business. Or, at least, it should be. What gets me more is this.
Let’s look at the top 5 memes.
>Somebody That I Used To Know
>Call Me Maybe
(BTW, in my opinion Grumpy Cat and Gangnam Style were the only genuinely good memes this year.) What do these memes have in common? Well, 4 out of 5 of these are deliberately promoted “products”. (Yes, I’m counting Kony 2012.) 3 are actually hit pop singles. And they are all self-contained works - even Grumpy Cat, if you count the complete body of pictures uploaded by Tabatha Bundesen as a “work”. There were macros, too, but the macros weren’t nearly as compelling as the original cat. The others may have gone viral and sparked a lot of parodies, but they weren’t like Troll Face or 60’s Spiderman where every iteration is equal, and most people who use the meme don’t even care what the original is.
In other words, memes are becoming less egalitarian, less of a participatory culture. They’re still more participatory than broadcast TV or radio - the audience chooses what goes viral, and is free to fuck around with it however they like - but they’re participatory in the same way as fandom, where there’s an original “text” with a definite “author”, which is privileged in some way, at the very least serving as a universal constant within the “fandom” or the audience of the “meme”.
This isn’t some sort of conspiracy (although Scooter Braun’s behind Gangnam Style and Call Me Maybe, and that guy’s like a one-man New World Order). It’s just a coincidence, a natural confluence of a couple of factors:
a) corporations (and NGO’s) have discovered the power of memes, and are trying to use them, within the bounds of their own top-down marketing structures
b) the people who used to make memes are now making forced, unfunny memes, or just not making memes at all.
A big part of it’s that 4chan isn’t producing a lot of content any more. Love it or hate it, 4chan took the structural logic of the internet to the extreme that was needed to break online culture completely free of other paradigms (literary, broadcast, etc.) If everyone’s anonymous - not just hiding behind a username but literally Anonymous - you can’t have top-down distribution of content. You can’t have ownership. You have to develop something else - the internet meme: a form of content that’s shared and participatory from the start.
But 4chan seems to have gotten sick of the idea of memes altogether. When a lot of its minor memes, like Rage Comics and Advice Animals in particular, got really huge on the rest of the internet - more importantly, when they started being handled in a way that channers didn’t like - they basically threw a passive aggressive hissy fit. Any mention of memes on /b/ these days will get you told to “go back to Reddit”. (I’ve been there.)
And it’s hard to say if there’s any way to change this. Trying to influence 4chan, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis’ remark on Tolkien, is like trying to influence a Bandersnatch. Except it’s worse than that, because they respond to any outside pressure by going further in the opposite direction. Calling for more interesting, funny Original Content used to be something channers did - now they’d just see it as just 9gag looking for something else to steal instead of doing its own ungodly work. They’d rather /b/ stay “cancerous” forever than have to interact with the rest of the internet on equal terms.
Tumblr humour does have some potential. The Powerpoint meme combined observational and absurd humour in a way that I like to imagine would take the Cheezburger network by storm if it wasn’t so tl;dr.
I’ve also tagged this “alt lit” because people in the online “alternative literature” community have done a decent job of intentionally creating memes, which you aren’t supposed to do, but which is what the webmeme as an artform is up against, anyway, given Scooter Braun, Invisible Children etc..
Something like Nebula Dog may seem “hipster”ish but it’s better than forced new Advice
Animals People Now I Guess?, like “Sheltered Freshman”. (IMO. Admittedly, most people in the alt lit community itself don’t consider “better” or “worse” to be meaningful terms, a philosophy that may have had an effect similar to /b/’s anonymity.) There’s still something a bit too proprietary about the alt lit memes. Nebula Dog was created by Steve Roggenbuck, and 90% of Nebula Dog macros, including the ones made by other people, end up on his blog and get shared primarily through it. (The alt lit community places a high premium on one’s “personal brand”.) In this instance that hasn’t decreased the lulz so much as limited the spread (alt lit’s obscurity as a subculture might also be part of the problem).
Of course, I also think the collective ownership of the “meme” is itself an innovation worth preserving. That said, it might be harder to preserve from now on. Today there are entire sites devoted to “memes”. Everyone knows what a “meme” is, not just 4chan. It’s harder for a meme to develop unselfconsciously. Here’s the sticky predicament this budding artform finds itself in: on one hand, you have people on Reddit and 9gag and the Cheezburger network deliberately creating “memes” from a very limited template (Rage faces, Advice Animals), dictated by their preconceived ideas of what a “meme” is. The less naturally these emerge - the harder they try to be “memes” - the less funny they are. And these unfunny forced memes aren’t capable of competing with the forced memes that have huge money and established powers behind them, or conventional entertainment that just happens to go “viral”, like all these pop videos.
Ergo, while “viralability” as a marketing strategy is now taken for granted, the “meme” as an (ill-defined) art form is at risk of sinking back into obscurity.
What’s hard to say at this point is whether people who genuinely like memes - I assume that’s you, whoever’s reading this - should embrace the self-consciousness, stop pretending like 4chan that we still live in the pure golden age when the world wasn’t aware of us, and outright try to create new memes as art. Humour, whatever. Something that will compete with what’s out there. And whether we should do so operating deliberately on a more sophisticated theory of what makes something a funny meme than “face on a starburst background with text above and below it.”
Or whether we all just need to remind ourselves of what it says on Encyclopedia Dramatica (censored for tumblr and basic human decency):
>”A meme cannot be created by any one person. Every noob tries this Over 9000 times.”
>”A meme… is a gift to be shared, something to be cherished, but not some lame token of glory”
>”A meme is born <hyperlink to “Original Content”>”
I've found two different kinds of posts on Tumblr.
Not different due to content, but different due to how they spread.
There’s likable content, and mimetic content. Both are great, but both are quite different.
Likable content gets reblogged primarily from one tumblelog. A lot of people reblog it from this one person; the conclusion is that they have a lot of followers, and they post pretty cool stuff. But anyone who would like what they post probably already follows them, so it doesn’t get reblogged. It doesn’t spread. A lot of posts I’ve seen like this are pictures of cute cats, cute dogs, and so forth.
Mimetic content starts out slow. It gets reblogged by one or two followers of the original author. But they find it interesting enough to share as well. This is where most of these posts die - they get reblogged a few times and there they lie. But some of these posts catch the attention of the likable curators. These authors have a lot of followers, and at least a couple people reblog every post they make. These curators are a unique lynchpin in the tumblr (and, I suspect, twitter) reblog ecosystem.
What if you could tell at a glance whether a post’s reblog graph was likable or mimetic? Would it fundamentally change your decision to reblog or not?
If tumblr stored the reblog data in a graph database like Neo4J, it would be trivial to determine - just find the longest path in a (directed) reblog graph, and divide by the number of nodes in the network. That gives you the viral ratio of the original post.
To take it a little further, you could probably find the tastemakers on tumblr in a similar manner. Tastemakers aren’t necessarily those who post a lot, or who get reblogged a lot. Tastemakers are posters who consistently:
- Produce or post content that is consistently mimetic in nature
- Consistently have a high centrality within the graph of posts that they reblog. This means reblogging the post soon and having a lot of people reblog from them.
How cool would it be if Tumblr could tell you who the tastemakers for a given post were?
What is Memetics?
Meme: an information pattern, held in an individual’s memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual’s memory.
Memetics: the theoretical and empirical science that studies the replication, spread and evolution of memes
Cultural evolution, including the evolution of knowledge, can be modelled through the same basic principles of variation and selection that underly biological evolution. This implies a shift from genes as units of biological information to a new type of units of cultural information: memes.
A meme is a cognitive or behavioral pattern that can be transmitted from one individual to another one. Since the individual who transmitted the meme will continue to carry it, the transmission can be interpreted as a replication: a copy of the meme is made in the memory of another individual, making him or her into a carrier of the meme. This process of self-reproduction (the memetic life-cycle), leading to spreading over a growing group of individuals, defines the meme as a replicator, similar in that respect to the gene (Dawkins, 1976; Moritz, 1991).
Dawkins listed the following three characteristics for any successful replicator:
the more faithful the copy, the more will remain of the initial pattern after several rounds of copying. If a painting is reproduced by making photocopies from photocopies, the underlying pattern will quickly become unrecognizable.
the faster the rate of copying, the more the replicator will spread. An industrial printing press can churn out many more copies of a text than an office copying machine.
the longer any instance of the replicating pattern survives, the more copies can be made of it. A drawing made by etching lines in the sand is likely to be erased before anybody could have photographed or otherwise reproduced it.
What do Lolcats, hijabs, Volkswagon Bugs, ‘Where’s the Beef?,’ Zeus, chain letters, planking, and double-entry bookkeeping all have in common? Well, if you’ve read the title of this post, you may have guessed that they’re all memes.
Those of you familiar with the internet, particularly sites like livejournal and tumblr, are all too familiar with the word ‘meme.’ But, if you’re anything like me, you didn’t know where the word came from, or even what, precisely, it meant.
The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Pronounced to rhyme with ‘seem’, a meme is to human culture what a gene is to biology. Like genes, memes are passed between individuals, encapsulate a piece of information, and mutate over time. The term is far more broad than the latest survey or challenge showing up on your livejournal friends list or tumblr dashboard. Miriam-Webster defines the meme as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.”
Dawkins used the idea to suggest that culture can be subject to evolution in the same manner as biology. Memetics has been used to suggest theories to explain things as varied as religious symbols to religions themselves to racism. Others are more interested in the how of memes, proposing theories that memes may act more like parasites or viruses than genes. Still others have used the concept of memes as a tool to explore how the brain works, such as an experiment asking autistic people to explain common memes such as “Go with the Flow.”
Memes aren’t even restricted to just humans. Memes have been observed in other species as well, such as dolphins and birds. (Think of a bird learning songs from its parents or neighbors).
Memetics, as fascinating as it may be, is still very young, and is considered by many scientists to be, at best, a pseudo-science and, at worst, utter garbage. One criticism is the fact that, unlike in genes, selection-pressure does not seem to balance mutation rate. Another is that the very concept of memes reduces extremely complex and multi-faceted ideas like religion or politics to simplistic and one-dimensional abstractions that vastly overlook what is actually being discussed. In other words, you can’t look at something like ‘Christianity’ in a microscope the same way you can a gene.
Whatever your stance on memes and memetics, if you’re reading this, you’re presumably on the internet, which means you’re being constantly bombarded with new memes. Better to be informed than not.
“The mapping of the human genome was completed early this century. As a result, the evolutionary log of the human race lay open to us. We started with genetic engineering, and in the end, we succeeded in digitizing life itself. But there are things not covered by genetic information...Human memories, ideas. Culture. History. Genes don't contain any record of human history. Is it something that should not be passed on? Should that information be left at the mercy of nature? We've always kept records of our lives. Through words, pictures, symbols... from tablets to books...But not all the information was inherited by later generations. A small percentage of the whole was selected and processed, then passed on. Not unlike genes, really. That’s what history is... But in the current, digitized world, trivial information is accumulating every second, preserved in all its triteness. Never fading, always accessible. Rumors about petty issues, misinterpretations, slander...All this junk data preserved in an unfiltered state, growing at an alarming rate. It will only slow down social progress, reduce the rate of evolution. ....The digital society furthers human flaws and selectively rewards the development of convenient half-truths. Just look at the strange juxtapositions of morality around you. Billions spent on new weapons in order to humanely murder other humans. Rights of criminals are given more respect than the privacy of their victims. Although there are people suffering in poverty, huge donations are made to protect endangered species. Everyone grows up being told the same thing. “Be nice to other people” “But beat out the competition!” “You are special." "Believe in yourself and you will succeed." But it's obvious from the start that only a few can succeed... You exercise your right to "freedom" and this is the result. All rhetoric to avoid conflict and protect each other from hurt. The untested truths spun by different interests continue to churn and accumulate in the sandbox of political correctness and value systems. Everyone withdraws into their own small gated community, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever "truth" suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large. The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh. No one is invalidated, but nobody is right either. Not even natural selection can take place here. The world is being engulfed in "truth." And this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper. We are trying to stop that from happening. It's our responsibility as rulers. Just as in genetics, unnecessary information and memory must be filtered out to stimulate the evolution of the species...Who else could wade through the sea of garbage you people produce, retrieve valuable truths and even interpret their meaning for later generations? That is what it means to create context. ”— J.F.K., Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001) Directed by Hideo Kojima
I’m letting myself go back to, well, my old self. Memetics has certainly been something incredible as a theory of everything. But it hasn’t been good for a full reconstruction of my character. I need a new approach. A more pragmatic approach. Let the old self thrive and try the new in bursts; let it cook slowly. Let it cook slowly.