MEMEs – The Mind-Viruses of Cultural Change

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Keep Calm and Meme On - blue background, white text Keep Calm meme

If you recognise the style of this image and phrase, you’ve been infected by a meme-virus!

‘Meme’ is a term coined by English biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He defined ‘memes’ as self-replicating ideas or cultural DNA – beliefs and actions that infect human consciousness, and are transmitted from mind to mind.

Dawkins sought to show that just as genes are the biological code carriers of DNA which carry our physical selves for replication, memes are the equivalent in terms of transmitting culture.

There is now an established body of science around memes, called memetics:

Meme: an information pattern, held in an individual’s memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual’s memory.

Memetics: the theoretical and empirical science that studies the replication, spread and evolution of memes

To create some context around this abstract concept, here are some examples:

‘Computer Says No’ – this deadpan phrase from the TV series Little Britain became a meme for people who are frustrated when confronted with the indifference of electronic technology and the power it has over our lives.

‘Not Happy Jan!’ – a classic ad campaign for the Australian Yellow Pages in 2006, this meme is still used today to express displeasure.

‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – a motivational poster produced in 1939 at the start of the Second World War by the British government, it was intended to raise public morale following anticipated attacks on major cities.

The Nigerian dude who keeps telling you he has a large sum of money he needs moved, and can give you a tidy commission if only you can provide him with your bank details.

The seemingly endless list of movie catchphrases from ‘Bond, James Bond’ to ‘Say hello to my little friend’ to ‘He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy!’ to ‘We’re going to need a bigger boat’.

All memes.

But memes are not just catchphrases and advertising slogans. There are now a slew of meme-making websites where people can create memes for online sharing, using their own images and phrases, using images that have already become memes, or a mashup of both – they include Meme Center, Generator Meme, and Keep-Calm-O-Matic where you can create your very own ‘Keep Calm’ meme (there are over 5,800,000 memes out there that have been generated by this site alone).

Anyone can make internet memes, which both democratises the possibility of creating one, and also explains the variety in design quality, spelling, grammar and attempts at humour.

But memes aren’t just funny, cute or shocking content shared on social media and the internet, and they aren’t the preserve of the entertainment and advertising industry.

Memes are also social norms, habits, songs/ melodies, stories, skills, art, gestures, fashion trends – any type of information pattern that can be transmitted from one person to another.

The spread of Nazism and Christianity are also examples of memes at work, as is any other -ism (Marxism, Taoisim, Feminism). The Mexican Wave. The Sign of the Horns. The Yin-Yang symbol.

Someone, somewhere, started all of them – one person. And they spread, and stuck.

What is it about memes that makes them travel across space and time, infecting minds across language barriers?

Knowing that the sharing of cat pictures on social media is a meme in and of itself, and knowing that banking and finance tend to be topics that make people’s eyes glaze over, Positive Money hilariously combined a cutesy cat picture with a message about an aspect of banking:

picture of a cute ginger kitten sitting up on its hind paws, doe-eyed caption 'Fractional Reserve Banking Makes Cats Sad'

Did it work to get people fired up about fractional reserve banking? Probably not. But then its not designed to reach the already engaged.

The key question is, was it shared by money and finance-types in places where others not already exposed to this idea might see it and either smile, or goo-goo at the cat? Did it cause anyone to Google ‘fractional reserve banking’ or visit Positive Money’s site?

For those new to the concept of fractional reserve banking (and why would they care?), the kitty picture is more likely to work as a way to spark curiosity than a written article – in fact there’s a theory on this phenomenon called the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism.

Memes and Sustainability

What about sustainability memes?

A well-known ‘green’ meme is the Mobius loop, which will be recognised by most people as the universal symbol that something is recyclable:

mobius loop - recycling symbol, three green arrows chasing each other

How can the success of this, and other memes, be identified and harnessed for other sustainability-related initiatives?

On his blog at Terra Infirma, sustainability expert Gareth Kane examines the meme-phenomenon of Movember and offers up some reasons why it has succeeded – fun, novelty, peer pressure, relevance and great branding – and why most sustainability initiatives do not:

In comparison, most sustainability engagement programmes are, at best, like one of those multitudinous nude charity calendars – hackneyed, clichéd and unoriginal. They’re produced with the best of intentions, but the world yawns.

If you want to get a sustainability meme running in your organisation, you could do worse than use Movember as a yardstick.

San Francisco consultancy DarwinSF is undertaking some work on how memetics can be applied to climate science, with partner Joe Brewer – who has a background in cognitive linguistics (how language relates to conceptualisation) – noting:

Global warming is a meme. No-one experiences it directly. They experience it through perception. The science is pointing out a very real empirical phenomenon, but the only way people can experience it as stories and ideas in their lives.

Darwin SF’s report ‘Global Warming is A Virus!’ – which merits a separate blog post itself – is available as a slideshare presentation.

Secrets of Meme Success

one match igniting the first in a row

The transmission power of ‘Not Happy, Jan’ is such that the comments on the YouTube vid for the ad include one from someone unaware of the origins of the phrase: ‘…so thaaaaaat’s where it came from!’ and: ‘Indelibly etched into the minds of many Australians.’

Another commenter asks:

How did this ad become so legendary? People are STILL saying the famous ‘Not happy Jan!’ all the time!

Good question!

Memetics is far from an exact science, and although the internet is full of advice on ‘how to create a viral video/campaign’ and the like, if there was a formula to it, it would be being used by everyone.

To some extent it can be designed, but even good design is no guarantee, and much of it is pure luck.

Here are some good rules of thumb:

  • make it short – there’s increasing amount of everything out there competing for the same allocation of time and attention
  • keep it simple – the more complex it is, the more work the brain has to do to process the unfamiliar
  • make the message matter
  • make it memorable by using metaphor, repetition
  • create an emotional impact – for sustainability, sticking mostly with positive (humour, awe) rather than negative (shocking, disgusting) triggers
  • make it shareable content – people share things with others because they want them to have the same experience
  • design an experience – take the audience on a journey, tell them a story

In my view, one of the best example of meme-success for sustainability is The Story of Stuff Project series of videos presented by Annie Leonard, and produced by Free Range Studios.

Commencing with the original documentary in 2007, this series continues to have a huge impact, having been incorporated into school curricula and corporate sustainability trainings; seen in over 228 countries; translated into at least 15 languages; and viewed by over 12 million people. And it reflects the majority of the points listed above.

Think about what you share, online or offline – why? This will give you some insights into how to approach your change work.

If you want your ideas or behaviours to ignite and to spread, consider how you can meme all the things!

meme all the things character

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