- The Guardian,
- Thursday August 10 2000
You might not think dancing hamsters and the 'flu have much in common, other than the ability to irritate. But they do - thanks to a theory which suggests ideas and information may replicate themselves in the same way viruses spread.
These self-replicating packets of information were christened "memes" (pronounced "meems") by author Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. And you will recognise them from countless urban myths, email "spams" and net-born heroes like Turkish web celeb Mahir "I kiss you" Cagil.
These are much more than just whispers being passed down a line. Religion and ritual are memes, as are fashions, political ideas and moral codes.
They are copied from one person to the next, planting fundamental beliefs and values that gain more authority with each new host. Memes are the very building blocks of culture. Not every meme is a big idea, but any meme with the right stuff can go global once it hits the internet.
For anyone who has not seen the Hampster Dance (sic), its appeal is difficult to explain. A page of crudely animated hamsters singing the same few notes over and over (and over and over) would not get past the planning stage at most dot.coms.
But for Thomas Lotze, a student at Harvard University, it was a mammoth web hit. He found the hamsters on a page that included porn banners and copied them over to his own smut-free site in February of 1999.
Within two weeks it had attracted 13,000 hits, spawning a phenomena that lead to hundreds of imitators, an unofficial single by UK group the Cuban Boys and, that most American indicator of success, threats of legal action for breach of copyright.
The hampsters' creator, Deirdre LaCarte, runs a company promoting the rodent ravers (they now live at www.hampsterdance2.com).
In a medium where the replication and redistribution of information happens faster than you can say "I Kiss You", the most unlikely things thrive.
Once memes may have travelled at steady rate, taking hold with pernicious stealth. Now contagious ideas can be delivered direct to millions through newsgroups, mailing lists and websites. Dancing hamsters and Mahir do not hold the meme monopoly. It seems that just about any daft idea will do.
Cartoon frog in a liquidiser? If it has not already been in your mailbox it soon will be. Internet Cleaning Day? That comes around at least once a year. Potato powered web servers? The venerable Dr Dobbs Journal, USA Today, BBC Online and The Mirror's IT columnist Matt Kelly were convinced enough to run stories on it after picking up the meme from Slashdot.org. The guys at the Beeb even carefully explained how electricity could be chemically generated from a spud.
The best internet memes replicate quickly, gaining authenticity and achieving mythical status as their familiarity grows. Endorsement by "legitimate" media sources cannot harm either, but why is the net such a fertile breeding ground for memes?
British computer scientist Garry Marshall, author of a paper entitled The Internet And Memetics, http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Conf/MemePap/Marshall.html believes that the internet is a "full-blown memetic system" from the encoded network protocols it employs to the ways people use it.
Even the processes the net uses to route information as individual packets are analogous to the passage of memes in the real world. How people communicate over the net contributes, too, encouraging conversation that packs the most amount of meaning into the smallest amount of space. The best internet memes share the same characteristics as the best traditional memes. They can just be copied and distributed more quickly.
The plethora of urban myths and legends on the net suggests that memes can be manufactured. Just include components that combine elements of truth with a catchy or "contagious" idea.
An email that recently came back into circulation titled Save Sesame Street asks respondents to petition the government against budget cuts to the PBS public TV network in the US.
Students at the University of Chicago started the meme back in 1995 when Big Bird and his chums faced real peril in the form of diminishing funds. While the financial issues were quietly resolved shortly after, the "petition" continues to replicate at a rate of knots - only the dates get changed. A case where direct action worked far too well.
Although many engineered memes are pranks or hoaxes, webmaster John Stoner is trying to spread a meme to encourage people to act more kindly towards one another. His site at www.generosity.org urges you to "do something good for someone, like pay the toll of the car behind you in the tollbooth, or buy a treat for the next person who walks in the door at the bakery".
You are then encouraged to leave a card for your beneficiary stating: "This is for you! Now it's your turn: go do something good for someone else. Do it anonymously. Pass on this card."
The basic definitions for what constitutes a "meme" remain fairly constant, but debate rages about whether memetics is a science, a philosophy, a part of cultural studies or simply a buzz word to describe something we were all aware of anyway.
But by discussing the topic, even to question its validity, you spread it. Memetics is itself a meme...