Monday, 28 March 2011

Memetics - first proofs - the video

A short video of me with the first proofs of my forthcoming 2011 book: Memetics.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

The gene-meme crossover point

Memes have become as popular as genes on the internet this month.

Genes have been overtaken in popularity! This is a historic moment!

In the plural, now "memes" have overtaken "genes" too:

Saturday, 26 March 2011

2011 - year of the meme!

Following up on my previous blog post regarding the popularity of the term "meme", it appears that 2011 may be the year of the meme!

The latest Google Trends results for "meme" are pretty spectacular:

History of "Meme" searches (with news information)

Here are the current Google Trends results for "memes":

History of "Memes" searches (with news information)

Web search (memes):

Image search (memes):

Web search (meme):

Image search (meme):

I am pleased. The term "meme" has gone viral! Memes appear to have a bright future.

Also, I seem to have chosen a good time to publish a book on the subject.

Note: 2010 was also declared to be the year of the meme.

Note: this article describes a confounding factor when searching for "memes".


Some more data:

History of "Meme" searches (cleaned up search data, but with no news)

History of "Memes" searches (cleaned up search data, but with no news)

History of "Meme" searches in the last year ((cleaned up search data, but with no news)

History of "Memes" searches in the last year (cleaned up search data, but with no news)

Lastly, the NYT search facility offers some news volume information. The following data was gathered from the NYT on 2011-11-29.

Memes since 1851: 4660.
Memes in the last 12 months: 2860.
Memes in the last 3 months: 1970.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Rising trends - from Google

Google Insights for Search has some nice trend-spotting tools. It identifies rapidly-rising search terms. Here are a few examples:

Memetics - first proofs

Here is a photograph of the first proofs of my (forthcoming) 2011 book: Memetics.

This is still a prototype. The cover is glossy and slick. I am pretty pleased with it.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Memetic hitchhiking

Genetic hitchhiking is a well-known and well-understood effect in organic biology - where a gene spreads by virtue of linkage to another gene which is subject to favourable selection.

"Memetic hitchhiking" is the same thing - but with memes, instead of genes.

Memetic hitchhiking is a key marketing concept. It typically involves taking some viral content, and attaching some payload material to it. The viral content spreads naturally, dragging the payload material along for the ride in the process.

The viral content can come from practically anywhere.

Payload removal

Payload removal is a real problem. For example, this viral video is an IKEA advert - showing an elderly lady activating a man's car air bag by hitting his car with her handbag. It has been replicated countless times (here, here, here, here and here) on YouTube - and on most occasions the trailing advert has been stripped off.


Rather than just appending or prepending the payload to the viral content, a more sophisticated technique is to interleave the two. For example, here is a video of Google's Chrome interleaved with gay pride as a delivery mechanism.

Memetic linkage

Memetic hitchhiking depends on the idea of memetic linkage - which describes how memes can come to be linked together in various ways.

Phenotypic hitchhiking

Memetic hitchhiking is closely related to the idea of Phenotypic hitchhiking. However, memetic hitchhiking normally depends on memetic linkage, while phenotypic hitchhiking does not.


A closely-related technique involves forming a link between a common phrase - or a catchy song - and your product. I call that triggering - and cover it in a separate post.

Bait and hook

The favoured content normally contains what Hofstadter described as the bait and hook. The bait is what attracts people in the first place, and the hook is what makes them spread the idea. Between them, these do much of the work of propagating the content.

Anyone who has ever attached a picture of a pretty lady to their article or product is essentially using memetic hitchhiking for marketing purposes.

Of course, I genuinely needed a picture of a female hitchhiker for this article. The pretty girl is the favoured content. The payload that comes along for the ride is her boyfriend - who was hiding off-camera at the time the above photograph was taken.

Hitchhiking towards extinction

While hitchhiking with positively-selected memes leads to success, hitchhiking with unsuccessful memes leads towards extinction. It really matters which memes are used as hitchhiking partners.


Memetic hitchhiking has been one of the targets of critics of memetics. Here is Massimo Pigliucci:

Yes, the analogy transfers, not the theory. For instance, you simply cannot apply the population genetic terms "hitchhiking" and "recombination" to memes while retaining their technical meaning. You can do so only by analogy, which is the whole problem with memetics. It's a metaphor.
As you can see from this page this criticism is technically mistaken. Hitchhiking (in the technical sense) applies to memes just as it does to genes.


Microsoft used memetic hitchhiking using the double-rainbow video. Here is the original video:

...and here is the Microsoft version:

Others have made spin-off versions of the video, attaching their own distinctive elements to the original in various ways. For example here is an actress performing a double-rainbow monologue.

Memetic hitchhiking is used by parodies. It is used by cover versions. Fan fiction uses it. It is used by many mashups.

Another advertising example would be this viral Bruce Lee footage:

Here, though, there is some risk that the viral part of the video could become separated from the Nokia advert "payload". Another example is the T-Mobile Royal Wedding:

Again, little besides copyright law prevents the viral content being separated from the advert - payload removal.

Another example of memetic hitchhiking from Microsoft:

Another example of memetic hitchhiking is Volkswagen's Piano stairs / fun theory advert. Note that in this case, the advert is relatively inconspicuous. Only a few would care enough to bother with payload removal.


Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Information by James Gleick

The Information - A History, a Theory, a Flood is a new book, written by James Gleick. It has an extensive section on memes.

A substantial section of it has been published on the Australian Gizmondo website. The title is The Evolution Of The Meme.

The same section has also been published in the Smithsonian Magazine, under the title of What Defines a Meme?

The article covers Hofstadter, chain letters, memetics, internet memes, the gene-meme analogy, etc.

Follow the link to enjoy. James Gleick also has a video about the book:

James Gleick spoke to Googlers about his latest book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood - on the topic of information theory. The talk is mostly Q&A and - alas - has little about memes.

Another video: The Information - A History, a Theory, a Flood. This one has some bits about memes - starting 39 minutes in.

James Gleick has a blog. There is not much there about memes yet either.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011


Bob Mottram drew my attention to Churnalism recently using his blog.

Here is a Churnalism video: When press releases masquerade as news stories.

The Wikipedia page (if you will permit a little copy/paste) on Churnalism says:

Churnalism is a form of journalism in which press releases, wire stories and other forms of pre-packaged material are used to create articles in newspapers and other news media in order to meet increasing pressures of time and cost without undertaking further research or checking.
Of course everyone already knows about Churnalism on some level - but giving it a name, and looking into the phenomenon a little is quite revealing.

Memetic condoms

If memes are like diseases, then maybe memetic condoms could stop people getting so badly infected by the wrong sorts of memes.

That is the idea that Diane Benscoter has been promoting on TED.

Diane is the ex-Moonie lady that made the How Cults Think presentation (embedded below) - which also featured memes.

Her presentation about memetic condoms focussed on extremism. She wrote:

If extremism is an infectious destructive meme it must be understood and combated with an even more powerful meme.

However, the idea seems more broadly applicable - and could be applied to the general case off preventing infections.

Of course preventing memetic infections with immunisations and other interventions is not exactly a new idea.

The more usual idea is that you fight memes with memes - using a kind of memetic innoculation - the cultural equivalent of a vaccination.

However, memetic condoms is a nice idea that I haven't heard too much about until now. I am not sure how realistic "barrier" methods of prevention are. That particular idea might go down better behind the Great Firewall of China, though.

Cultural condoms might alliterate better - though it isn't so specific to memetics. "Mememtic prophylactic" is another similar term.

No doubt the pope would not approve of memetic condoms though!

TVTropes gets into memetics

The amazingly popular TVTropes site has been getting into memetics in a big way recently.

It is not just memes, they use the word "memetic" all over the place.

Their main index page - with most of their memes on it - is here.

Some more sample pages:

  • MemeticHandGesture
  • MemeticOutfit
  • MemeticSexGod
  • MemeticMolester
  • MemeticBadass
  • FountainOfMemes
  • ImageMacro
  • ForcedMeme
  • RickRoll
  • Tuesday, 1 March 2011

    Darwinism and the Divine bashes memes

    I looked through Alister McGrath's latest book today. It is:

  • Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology (2011)

    There is quite an extensive secction to do with bashing memes.

    I have mostly tried to avoid giving religious examples in my forthcoming book on Memetics - to ensure that the contents don't date too much - but others have not held back when it comes to using memetics to explain how crazy religious dogma persists into the modern world, when it is so obviously such nonsense.

    McGrath represents one attempt by theologians to fight back. He has written several previous books covering memes:

  • McGrath, Alister (2004) Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life.

  • McGrath, Alister and McGrath, Joanna Collicutt (2007) The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine.

    ...but the most recent coverage is some of the most extensive. He says memes are not scientific, don't exist, don't have a Journal any more, the editor of the ex-memetics journal give the topic a kick to the throat - and so on.

    Finally he concludes that - even if there was something to memetics - atheism would be a meme too - so that would just about makes things even.

    I usually just write off McGrath as a crazy christian. However, it occurs to me that perhaps something good might come of all this. If theologically-inclined types argue against memetics in their Dawkins / Dennett bashing, maybe that will make some atheist types come and defend it.

    Atheism - despite being a bit of a negative cause whose main activity seems to be bashing total nonsense - seems to have a fair amount of energy behind it.

    Perhaps some of that could be put to use promoting some of the real science behind cultural evolution.