Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Selfish Meme (review)

Kate Distin's 2005 book, "The Selfish Meme".

Review by me, circa 2009.

Sorry, but there's no transcript of this review.


Memeaology is the study of cultural family lineages. It is named after geneaology - the study of family lineages.

Memeaology is closely related to phylomemetics, just as geneaology - is closely related to phylogenetics. The difference is that the "phylo-" terms refer to groups. The "-ology" terms are more general.

Memealogy seems to be one of the more neglected terms that arises out of the gene-meme substitution pattern for manufacturing cultural evolution terminology out of the existing gene-based terminology.

I am not sure how to best explain memeaology's poor penetration to date. Maybe it has something to do with the difficulty of pronouncing it.

Anyhow, Memealogy is a fine term, and I recommend that it be more widely adopted.

There are some existing sites devoted to Memeaology. The best-known one is KnowYourMeme - which specializes in Internet Memes. Other sites with some Memeaology content include Wikipedia, TVTropes and UrbanDictionary.

Douglas Hofstadter's contribution to memetics

Douglas Hofstadter had a nice section about memes in his 1985 book Metamagical Themas - the book which arose from his Scientific American column of the same name - in the chapter entitled: On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures.

There, Hofstadter develops an interesting "anatomical breakdown" of the meme - involving memes, schemes, co-memes, bait and hooks. It has subsequently been extended to include threats and vaccimes.

Essentially a scheme is a collection of cooperating memes, called co-memes.

The common types of co-memes are now considered to be:

  • bait - attractive incentive to adopt the meme;
  • hook - promoting replication - being "hooked" is all about passing it on;
  • threat - of punishment, to assist hook execution;
  • vaccime - innoculation to protect against rival memes.

Hofstadter only really promoted bait and hook in his 1983 article. He gave some examples of these:

  • Hook: “It is your duty to convince others that this sentence is true”;
  • Bait: “The villain is wronging the victim.”
  • Bait and subtle hook: “The whales are in danger of extinction”.

Readers of the January 1983 Scientific American column replied, with more examples of bait and hooks. Hofstadter attributes the "bait" and "hook" terminology to one of his correspondents, Donald R. Going.

Hofstadter's analysis stands up pretty well, in my opinion.

Bait and threats represent the carrot and the stick, which are needed to provide the motivation for action on the part of the host. The hook contains the component of the metabolic content of the meme that helps it to reproduce, and the vaccime helps the meme fend off competitors.

An exaample of a threat would be: “If you do not believe then you will burn in hell”. An example of a vaccime would be: "thou shalt have no other gods before me". This helps resident religious memeplexes to fend off boarding parties from other religions.

What else is there to say?

I discuss some ways of extending schemes to include more co-memes in my post on payloads and penetration.

Ways of sub-dividing the concept of bait further are covered in my bait-breakdown article.

Incidentally, the whole "On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures" chapter seems to be currently available on Google Books.

Memetics glossary

The Memetics Glossary I have been preparing for my 2011 memetics book is now online. I've also put a link to it in the sidebar -->

Corrections, comments and proposed additions would all be welcome.

Monday, 25 April 2011


A commonly-used marketing and advertising technique involves forming a link between a common phrase - or a catchy song - and your product. I call this product triggering, or sometimes just triggering. Famous examples of the technique include:

  • “Have a break... Have a Kit Kat.”
  • “Happiness... is a cigar called Hamlet.”
  • “There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”
The link is formed via observational learning, and then pattern-completion mechanisms complete the catchphrase when presented with the trigger.

Some catchphrases manage without including the product name - e.g.:

  • “Eat Fresh.”
  • “Because I'm worth it.”
  • “Think Different.”
  • “Once you pop, you can't stop.”

Many catchphrases receive special legal protection from trademark law - to allow those who register and pay a government office a legally-enforced monopoly over the catchphrase. For example, the phrase "Where do you want to go today?" is "owned" by Microsoft.

For the most part, triggering is not really a form of viral marketing. It does not normally rely on repetition of the advertising slogan by consumers, but rather works through conventional display advertising.

The slogans are carefully crafted memes, though - and surely have some potential for spreading between consumers.

Triggering is closely related to the concept of memetic hitchhiking. A self-help video that deals with the topic:

Sunday, 24 April 2011

News outlets cover internet memes

Major news outlets are regularly covering internet memes these days. Here is CNET:

...and CNN:

CNN have pages of viral videos and internet memes.

The news outlets are attempting to exploit memetic hitchhiking.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Dan Zarella - The Science of Social Media

Here is Dan Zarella's talk: The Science of Social Media: Engineering Contagious Ideas. Blurb:

I go to a lot of social media conferences and read a lot of social media advice and most of it is what I call 'unicorns and rainbows.' Stuff like 'engage in the conversation' or 'hug your followers.' It's good-sounding advice, and hard to disagree with – I'm not going to tell you to punch your customers in the face. The problem is that it's not based on anything more substantial than what 'feels right' typically. I like to get beyond the unicorns and rainbows into the real data, the real science of social media about why people behave the way they do online and how we as marketers can leverage that behavior to engineer contagious ideas.
Dan Zarella's web site:

Know Your Meme - Web Expo 2.0 keynote

Know Your Meme did the Web Expo 2.0 keynote this year.

Here is the video, and here is their blog post about it.

The Streisand Effect

The Streisand Effect is the term used to describe the way in which attempts to supress or censor content can sometimes have the paradoxical effect of promoting its spread.

People have a natural interest in things which other people want to keep secret. Also, the censor is usually percieved as a big bad organisation; the censorship is seen as a violation of free speech rights - and the Goliath effect kicks in.

Is it possible that the Streisand effect could be used for marketing purposes?

One possibilty is the censoring organisation may conduct the censorship - in order to produce publicity for themselves. Usually, censorship shows them in a bad light - but if they believe that there's no such things as bad publicity, things might still go well for them. Ralph Lauren seems like one example of this:

They issued DCMA takedown notices to prevent their impossibly-slender model from being spread around on the internet. The result was an explosion of their content on the web. Ralph Lauren apparently liked the effect so much that they repeated the trick with another model. These days if you search for Ralph Lauren model copies of those images head the list.

The other possibilty is that the censored organisation may release controversial content deliberately - in the hope of generating publicity. Controversial content gets circulated for many reasons besides the Streisand effect - but if the content is censored, that is sometimes the icing on the cake.

An example of this:

But of course Moore was playing a very clever game: “I thought I lived in America, how could this happen!” he was saying, while laughing all the way to the bank. This is the best PR his film could have ever gotten – being censored was the best thing that ever happened to Fahrenheit 911.

Cultural invasions

Between them, stasis and invasions explain most of the jerky progress observed in the fossil record.

This post is about cultural invasions.

Superficially, the abrupt starts and stops of creatures in the fossil record does not suggest gradualistic Darwinian evolution. What is responsible for it?

The main answer is that it is the result of invasions. Intermediate fossils are not seen because there weren't any. Rather than one species evolving into another one, new species displace other species by invading their territories.

The new species were still the result of standard gradualistic Darwinian evolution. The speciation is often far from the resulting invasion. Also, speciation often takes place on islands, where fossil preservation is less likely because islands are often small, and they are often eroded into the ocean.

Cultural invasions take place too. For example:

  • The English language is widely spoken in America and Australia - where it was not originally a native language.

  • The decimal system displacing roman numerals and other counting systems.

  • The Gregorian calendar has also become widely accepted internationally.

On a smaller scale, Barbie has successfully invaded islamic cultures - largely displacing the native "sara" doll. Hamburgers, Windows and Hollywood have also been widely imported.

Cultural invasions sometimes correspond to actual organic invasions - as took place when the English first invaded America. However, cuture can also propagate itself independenly from the genes of the people that transmit it. To help protect native cultures from cultural imperialism - and avoid Americanization - various organisations practicing cultural protectionism have been established. These promote cultural diversity in many parts of the world.

The fact that stasis and invasions also exist in the cultural realm should help to illuminate and understand these phenomena.

Cultural stasis

Between them, stasis and invasions explain most of the jerky progress observed in the fossil record.

This post is about cultural stasis.

In biology, stasis refers to the observation that some living things do not change for extended periods of time. This phenomenon is probably caused by the existence of adaptive peaks. Adaptive peaks are mountains in fitness landscapes, where hill-climbing optimisation processes - like evolution by natural selection - can become stuck.

It has been hypothesised that adaptive peaks occur in cultural evolution too. For example, Dan Sperber refers to them as cultural attractors.

Looking at the evidence, it does appear to be true that some cultural entities persist for extended periods of time. For example:

  • Coins date back thousands of years. The image shows some Electrum coins - which were minted around 600 BC.

  • Hammers were used in the stone age - some 30,000 years ago. Hammers fossilize well - and so are the oldest human tool known.

  • Matches are hundreds of years old. Friction matches were invented in the 1800s. Safety matches were invented in 1844. Matches have not changed very much since then.

  • Pencils have not changed much for hundreds of years. A pencil eraser was added, but modern pencils are still very similar to early ones.

Why do the peaks not move around more when the surrounding ecosystem changes? Some ideas are just objectively good. They do not depend very much on the surrounding context.

It is not just simple ideas that can resist change. Alice in Wonderland has resisted change for many decades - as has Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In such cases, respect for the original seems to be largely responsible for the stasis.

Phylomemetic inertia and stabilizing selection are two of the most common explanations offered for stasis.

Mainstream memetics - memes on The Big Bang Theory

Memes appeared recently on an episode of The Big Bang Theory. "The Herb Garden Germination" (Season 4, Episode 20).

Sheldon and Amy decide to test "meme theory". They circulate rumours and then examine how they spread.

See here for a slightly longer version - with more prelude [5:41].

Daniel Dennett - The Digital Planet 1988

Lots about memes here. The blurb reads:

Daniel Dennett describes how Darwin introduced the idea of natural selection by comparing it to the selective breeding of domestic animals; including intentional selection as well as unconscious selection. Dennett also introduces a fourth category, genetic engineering. He then goes on to show how these categories also apply to the evolution of cultures.

From a conference in 1998 called Der Digitale Planet (The Digital Planet), which also included Douglas Adams, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker.

Daniel Dennett - Breaking the Spell - Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Breaking the Spell is also the name of Dennett's most recent book. The section on memes starts at 15:30.

A similar video - where the memes section begins at 16:35.

Daniel Dennett - Breaking the Spell.

A similar video - where the memes section begins at 18:40.

Daniel Dennett - Ants, terrorism, and the awesome power of memes

Probably the best and most famous Dennett meme lecture on video.

Daniel Dennett - A Darwinian Perspective on Religions

Memes are mostly about 20 minutes in.

The blurb from an associated playlist reads:

Thursday, 19 March 2009 18:30 For the second event in the British Humanist Association's (BHA) Darwin 200 series of events, Dan Dennett is being welcomed to London. Philosopher and humanist Dan Dennett will speak on "A Darwinian Perspective on Religions: Past, Present and Future" at Conway Conway Hall, 25 Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL, on Thursday 19th March at 6.30pm. This event will be chaired by Professor Richard Dawkins. Eminent philosopher Dan Dennett addressed a packed-out Conway Hall last night, as he spoke in the second event in the British Humanist Association's Darwin 200 series of events. BHA Vice President Professor Richard Dawkins chaired the event, and described Mr Dennett as one of the "great explainers". This description was quickly realised as Mr Dennett embarked on a fascinating lecture on 'A Darwinian Perspective on Religion', in which he drew on and developed the "memetic" approach -- in a way that was understandable even to the beginner. Taking an historical and multi-discipline perspective, Mr Dennett explained how the evolutionary process of adaptation was the only way to explain not solely life, variety, species and so on but language, communication and, crucially, religions. Religions have developed in many ways and different parts of religion have evolved for different reasons. In an analogy with Dumbo's "magic feather", religion was described as a "crutch", it is an illusion that we need it in order to have morality, or to make sense of the world and so on. Mr Dennett encouraged us to get rid of that crutch, just as Dumbo got rid of his feather and found he could still fly without it. Mr Dennett powerfully - but typically humorously - concluded his lecture with explaining why religion and the promotion of it is harmful and damaging to the rational, scientific world in which we live.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Alex Mesoudi's book on cultural evolution

Alex Mesoudi's forthcoming book on cultural evolution is scheduled to be published later this year (2011). The book looks set to be called:
Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian theory can explain human culture and synthesize the social sciences.
It seems likely to be a fairly major academic work on the topic.

Alex Mesoudi is a lecturer in Psychology at the University of London. He has been working hard on the study of cultural evolution since around 2002 - and has published numerous papers on the topic.

His 2005 PhD thesis on the topic is a fine document - especially part 1 - which summarises the evidence for cultural evolution.

Some links to Alex's pages:

Update 2011-10-19:

Susan Blackmore - The Meme Machine (promotional video)

Susan Blackmore - promotional video for Susan's book, The Meme Machine.

Susan Blackmore - Creativity Forum 2010

Susan discusses memes for about 4 minutes.

Susan Blackmore - Memetic Evolution

This is the full 2001 interview with Susan Blackmore which was filmed for the TV show Evolution: "The Mind's Big Bang". We have previously posted the excerpt from the show containing the bits about memes.

Susan explains the theory of "memetic" evolution and describes some of the implications for the development of human intelligence, society and culture.