Practical Memetics, in 750 words

There are things that everyone, everywhere does: we move about, we sleep, we excrete, we have sex, we eat, and then we die. These behaviours are universal and are carried by our genes. But the ways we do these things differ substantially: our modes of transport, the designs of our bedrooms and bathrooms, our courting behaviours, what we have for lunch, our funeral rituals… these all vary from culture to culture and from century to century, even within the same genetic pool.

These differences arise because the way we think and act is not inherited biologically, but is learned from our parents and from our peers. Just as genes carry biological instructions, there must be something that carries information from person to person about what is ‘normal’ for the groups we are in. We now, thanks to Richard Dawkins, call this carrier a “meme”.

That term is much misused: memes are more than just viral videos and stupid cat jokes, they carry almost everything that we share with other people: language, national characteristics, odd social customs, music, fashions, beliefs, our scientific and technological structures, the side of the road we drive on, religions, political systems and economic structures.

There are all just inherited behaviours: there is no ‘inherent’ or ‘self-evident’ truth anywhere, not in politics, religion, society or business. All of these structures are transmitted by evolving and competing sets of memes.

Memes also maintain the reasons that organisations exist and absolutely everything about the way that they work. A sign of a healthy organisation is a simple and consistent set of memes, and it is no surprise that the most successful businesses are often those that adhere to the purpose and direction of the founders.

Unbalanced or inconsistent ideas produce sickness in society, in individuals and also in corporations. When organisations get sick the symptoms include (any or all of) stagnation, defeatism, inability to innovate, fads, excessive change, poor product quality, crushing bureaucracy and internal politics. Meme imbalances are also a major cause of merger failure.

Because our parents and our schools teach us different things in different ways, it is no surprise that national cultures are not all the same. Culture is not a matter of race or genes, but memes. Many international corporations don't recognise this, but seeking to impose Western management memes overseas, or even communicating in the same way as you would at home, can lead to disaster. By looking at differing attitudes to hierarchy, loyalty, ambiguity and duty we can highlight some major bear-traps for multinational corporations.

But aren’t national cultures being overwhelmed by Truth, Justice and the American Way? The answer to that is a resounding ‘no’, as national culture is embedded in the cradle. But the superficial stuff that governs most of our waking hours is horizontally transmitted, mutable and almost overwhelming.

Modern media mean that the number and variety of memes that we are exposed to is increasing exponentially. Most of these memes are poor (we look at ways to improve advertising) and sheer repetition isn't going to cut it.

Individuals are not swept away by the quantity of ideas coming at us every waking hour for the same reason that we are not killed by every sniffle we catch: we have an immune system that regulates what we believe. Big news – societies and organisations have an immune system too, and we will look at how that immune system manifests, and how to subvert it to deliver change.

The memes don’t stop at the edge of the corporation, of course. To sell your products, manage your brand, retain your customers or deliver effective change, you have to make your memes stick and that means sneaking them past your customers’ immune systems. So we will look at the basis of capitalism, the art of persuasion, and how to make memes more effective.

For a meme to be transmitted from one brain to another it has to be heard and stored, and then later transmitted and heard again. Appeals to emotion, logic and authority are powerful sales tools, but what really matters is fooling the mechanisms that the brain uses to select the memes that it regards as ‘true’. We filter out ideas according to a set of criteria based on novelty, simplicity, usefulness and what we believe already. If you don’t understand how these filters work, you haven’t a hope of influencing others.

So of course we will look at how memes - whether viral videos or effective marketing campaigns - work, and how the arithmetic of belief differs in saturated and unsaturated populations.



The short version