How memes arise and spread

On the
introductory page, we looked at a list of things which are commonplace but which are not universal. The idea of these things has been carried from person to person, and we will use the shorthand 'meme' for the carrier. But where on Earth did all memes these come from?

Deliberate creation

Some will have been consciously designed: some clever soul will sit down and create a piece of information (a diagram, an idea, a song, whatever). At this point, it is not correct to talk of it as a meme, and does not become so until the author transmits it to his friends. But once it is transmitted, if it meets certain criteria (more on this later) then it will spread and be imitated, and we have a new meme in circulation.

Truly novel ideas are rare, and memes are often consciously derived from other memes through a process of directed evolution. Vinyl records code information as bumps in the sides of a groove - the information is extracted in analogue form by measuring the height of the bumps. Because the groove has to be very long, it is arranged in a spiral on a flat surface which is mechanically rotated. CD and DVD players extract information digitally, but the spiral, the flat surface and the mechanical rotation have all survived into this format.

More complex structures can be modified too: in Thought Contagion (1996), Aaron Lynch describes how Mormonism was consciously developed from mainstream Christianity and found its first converts there.

Accidental evolution

The final, and I think most common, mechanism for meme creation is accidental evolution. It’s easy to see how this occurs in biology - a mutation in the structure of a finger joint turned out to be useful, and so now we all have opposable thumbs. You can see accidental evolution in action in children’s play - one child will introduce a game and it quickly mutates as it passes around a group.

These mechanisms can work together, quite unintentionally. Take the Macarena, a simple, repetitive and catchy song written in 1992 by a pair of Andalusian folk singers called ‘Los Del Rio’. Shortly after being created, the song was picked up by a Puerto Rican political party and adopted as an election theme, and so the meme now carried unrelated ideas with it. It was a good campaign and the tune spread pretty widely through that society during the election period. There has been speculation that its spread to America was driven by the many cruise ships that visit Puerto Rico, but we do know that an English-language version of the song, with accompanying dance, appeared in 1996 and became a worldwide hit. The dance was popular in clubs throughout the mid-1990s, so the dance and the song helped each other to propagate. So what we can see here is a mix of design, directed evolution and accident, coupled with vitally important feature that we will get to shortly - memes supporting each other.

How memes spread

As an experiment, I’d like you to try to identify how many cultural concepts you are exposed to in a single hour from watching television. You will be looking for evidence of things that the writers or characters learned from others. I’ll warn you now that the experiment is exhausting because answer will be in many hundreds (and probably thousands) rather than the tens. It can be hard to spot many of the memes because they seem like part of our daily lives, and therefore natural. But even as I concentrate on writing this, I reflect on the way that I need to tie my shoes, the fact that I was taught to wear trousers and shirt rather than a skirt, the QWERTY keyboard, the language I am writing in, the coffee beside me, and the diary, spreadsheet and crossword puzzle I have running in the background of the screen, all occupying space in my brain.

With thousands of memes being thrown at us, competition for a new meme is fierce. The new meme has to be isolated from all of the noise by the brain and then (consciously or unconsciously) accepted as worth storing. To avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of ideas to consider, we have developed a set of filters to weed out the memes that we regard are worth considering.

Of course, after noticing and accepting the meme, we have to store it in some form. For humans, this mechanism is memory, while for organisations it could (for example) also include instructions in the operating manual. Even if we do notice and accept it, remembering this meme accurately (so that we can pass it on without alteration) is far from certain.

Finally, we have to pass on the meme, consciously or unconsciously. The number of people we reach will depend on the number of times we express it, but also on the mechanism we use.

But what matters more than the number of times we repeat something - and this is often lost on advertisers - is the complexity of the meme and the attractiveness of its packaging. The Macarena is simple, catchy and is easily reproduced. If you wanted to spread this particular meme then you could sing, hum or whistle it in the elevator on the way to work. If you did this every day for a week, I predict that someone else will be whistling it by Friday night.

Hegelian philosophy, on the other hand, is very hard to explain (and many would say, even harder to care about), and your chances of getting it across in an elevator journey are practically nil. Sperber (2012) and Cladiere et al (2014) have raised the interesting notion that memes often tend to end up in certain states, which they call 'cultural attractors': for example, the widely replicated concept of pricing something at $9.99 rather than $10.00.

This particularly occurs where directed evolution takes place, given that the mutations are deliberate and slanted to a purpose.

Modes of transmission

Children resemble their parents because the vast majority of the genes that make us what we are are will have been passed down from our parents. We shall call this generation-to-generation transmission

There is a small amount of ‘horizontal’ transmission of genes from person to person once we are born (via viruses and gene therapy) but our bodies and brains are pretty much the product of vertical transmission of DNA from our parents.

Memes are also transmitted vertically from parent to child, and very occasionally from teacher to child. As we shall see in the series of articles on
culture, as these vertically transmitted memes are embedded at an impressionable age they make up some of our most fundamental values, and are the basis of difference in national identity.

However, memes have vastly more - and vastly more effective - transmission mechanisms than genes because they can also be spread horizontally, either directly from person to person or to large numbers of people using modern media. The vast numbers and diversity of the memes we are exposed to as part of our daily lives means that horizontal transmission tends to predominate in terms of superficial behaviours. So we are genetically the children of our sires, but memetically we are the children of our culture.

Copy the product, or the instructions?

Another difference between these replicators is that memes can either be carried as a finished whole or as a set of instructions on how to get there. In The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore distinguishes between
‘copy-the-product’ transmission of simple memes and ‘copy-the-instruction’ transmission of more complex ones. Most of us are capable of whistling the Macarena even if we cannot play an instrument or read music - the level of capability you need to reproduce it is pretty low. If we wanted to build a jet engine, however, we would need to be told how, and would probably need to pick up a lot of other engineering memes along the way to understand the instructions.

Let me illustrate further: I cook a mean smoked salmon soufflé, where the smokiness of the fish and the soft texture of the egg are complemented by hints of horseradish and gruyere. It’s a successful meme: I have passed it on to a number of other people and only modesty prevents me from including a recipe for it here.

However, the dish is not easy to make. Even if presented with a finished soufflé and a reasonable amount of time to examine it, taste it, smell it, weigh it etc, you would find it very hard to replicate the dish first time. The surest way of learning to make it would be to follow a recipe which sets out oven temperature, type of crockery, quantities of ingredients, how to beat the eggs and so forth.

In other words, the smoked salmon soufflé meme would best transmitted by copying the instructions. Of course, there is a chance that your soufflé would be better than mine, in which case you would transmit your version of the recipe, and the soufflé-making meme would have evolved.

On the other hand, if presented with a clay pot, a stone arrowhead, an arch, or a wheel, you could quickly grasp their essence. With time, you could recreate the product without understanding the physics behind any of them.

Copy-the-product is the basis of imitation and is a successful form of transmission for simple memes, but it relies on the skill of the copier so both copy fidelity and reproduction rates are reduced as the complexity of the idea grows.

That’s why you are unlikely to gain many converts for Hegelian philosophy in an elevator journey, while you might get them whistling that tune. We (or our memes) developed structured mechanisms for spreading by copy-the-instruction, and we call these things ‘schools’. Many business ideas, for example, are transmitted by apprenticeships, training courses, business schools and MBAs. Sometimes, interestingly, following these mental instructions doesn’t deliver the result you expect, as we shall see later.

Now for the useful stuff:
How they spread