MEMEs – The Mind-Viruses of Cultural Change

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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Secrets of Successful Storytelling

cover of change this 'How To Tell A Story'

If you’re wondering what ‘telling stories’ has to do with creating change, then the simple answer is – everything!

Jonah Sachs, Founder and CEO of Free Range Studios and author of Story Wars, has developed a summary of storytelling strategies in his Change This manifesto, ‘How To Tell A Story’.

Sachs is adamant that those intent on being effective change agents need to become adept at the art and science (and there is a science!) of storytelling:

Maybe it’s because we’re all so overloaded with information.

Maybe it’s because we’re all so starved for meaning.

Or maybe it’s because, thanks to social media, everyone’s become a broadcaster these days.

Whatever the reason, we’re all getting the same memo at the same time: if you want to be heard, you’d better learn to tell better stories.

He points out that we live in a world that has lost connection to its traditional myths, and that we are looking for new ones – new meaning.

Although such stories are powerful – they touch all of us, frame our worldview, shape our assumptions, subconsciously influence our behaviour – not all of us get to write those stories. What appears on the surface to be arguments over ideas or money is in fact fighting for control over cultural stories.

Sachs makes this appeal to those engaged in change work:

Put down your facts, your threats, your pleadings, and your special offers and try these simple storytelling strategies.

Below I’ve summarised and paraphrased a few of Sachs’s strategies which include:

Know What a Story Is 

A story is different to a strategy. Becoming a good storyteller requires becoming familiar with concepts like narrative and dramatic structure.

In his book ‘The Writer’s Journey’, Hollywood development executive and story consultant Christopher Vogler outlines ‘The Hero’s Journey’ (also known as ‘The Monomyth’).

This is a basic pattern of narrative, or story, that appears to be common across time and cultures, the essence of which was distilled by scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell in his classic work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949).

This pattern might best be summed up as ‘The Quest’ – think of the storyline of films and literature such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Can you see how they follow this pattern?

circular b+w diagram of the Hero's Journey - the text comprising this image can be found here's_journey.htm

Image credit – to enlarge image, click it, then click again

Note also that the hero undergoes an inner transformation, as well as outer journey, and it is this transformation that will be of interest to change agents:

circular b+w diagram of hero's inner journey - text comprising this diagram can be found on the same page as the previous diagram

Image credit – to enlarge image, click it, then click again

The elements of Luke Skywalker’s Hero’s Journey and how they can relate to an audience’s journey of change and transformation are captured in this excellent diagram by Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design.

Inviting people to be part of a story is much more effective at motivating and engaging an audience than issuing instructions or appeals to logic and reason.

Be Clear on Your Values

The characters, conflicts and settings of a story are not the story. They are elements that are created and shaped in such a way for a purpose – to illustrate, through story, a moral truth about the world. As Sachs beautifully puts it ‘stories are containers for values’.

The use of the word ‘illustrate’ is important, because the most effective storytelling follows the maxim ‘show don’t tell’. If you ‘tell’ you run the risk of preaching. If you ‘show’, the audience draws their own conclusions from the sequence of story events and what happens to the characters, and are more likely to internalise the message.

In order to reveal a truth, a storyteller must first understand the values he or she stands for:

By choosing the values you promote in every story you tell, you stake out a territory and ask others to come join you, driven by their own sense of what truly matters.

Sachs points out that marketers and advertisers have long known that telling stories based on universal human values is far more effective than simply communicating the benefits of their product or service.

However, most of these stories have appealed to values such as fear, greed, status-seeking and safety, which are characterised as ‘inadequacy storytelling’ – that is, only a relationship with a brand or leader can fulfil this manufactured sense of lacking something.

Yet Joseph Campbell’s work revealed that stories which work best are not the ones that frighten people, but the ones that call them to heroic action, inspiring them to live out transcendent values such as Justice, Perseverance, Love.

This revelation is imperative for sustainability communicators who have largely attempted to motivate people to respond to ‘the call’ with communication based on fear and/or guilt.

Make Your Audience the Hero

Yoda mentors Luke Skywalker in Star Wars

In keeping with the Hero’s Journey pattern and Joseph Campbell’s model, Sachs that audiences need to identify with a hero who is like them – kind of ordinary, the person you would least expect to change the world.

He cites the examples of Luke Skywalker, from Star Wars, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Frodo from Lord of the Rings. All ordinary characters living ordinary lives until an ‘inciting event’ (such as the destruction of Luke’s home and family, and the tornado that swept Dorothy’s house away) rips them from the Ordinary World and sends them on a path of change.

He warns not to fall into the trap of casting yourself as the hero:

…as the leader telling a story, you are not the helpless outsider. You’re the expert. You are not the hero, your audience is. Make sure the main character(s) in your story are people who start out a lot like your audience, and then evolve to be like your audience’s aspirational selves.

The audience needs to relate to the hero, and it is the hero (the audience) that goes on the journey of change and transformation.

To use Nancy Duarte’s Star Wars metaphor, your audience is Luke Skywalker – your role as storyteller is that of Yoda, a mentor to unearth and bring into play capabilities already within the group.

The Power of Stories for Sustainability

Sachs is one of an increasing number of advocates who understand the power of stories to change the culture towards sustainability.

David Korten, author of ‘The Great Turning’ and ‘Agenda for a New Economy’, is a well-known proponent of the power of stories to change culture.

His ‘Story Change Matrix’ sets out a series of current cultural myths (stories we tell ourselves), those of ‘Empire’, and a corresponding series of ‘Earth Community’ stories that we can aspire to, speak of, and enact. For example, the ‘Empire’ story of human nature is that people are by nature greedy, selfish and violent. The ‘Earth Community’ story is that we are hard-wired to reward caring and co-operation.

Tom Atlee’s work on Story Fields is another rich seam for would-be storytellers to mine.

In his paper ‘Is Humanity Fatally Successful?’ William Rees, Post Carbon Institute fellow, and creator of the Ecological Footprint, speaks of how the need to recognise and address the role of myth and story is particularly critical, because modern industrial society believes it is no longer bound by myth – we equate myth with superstition and the unscientific beliefs of so-called ‘primitive’ peoples, and yet contemporary global culture is as susceptible to comfortable myths as any other:

We tend to think of myths as fanciful stories or primitive superstitions characteristic of the belief systems of relatively primitive peoples. By contrast, we see ourselves as a science-based, fact-based society that has long-since abandoned its need for mythic constructs. My argument is that this is, itself, our greatest social myth.

The common belief that techno-industrial society generally makes its major decisions based on scientific knowledge, fact and analysis, is simply wrong. We can find myriad examples where factual scientific knowledge has almost no impact on how people think, on popular (group) behaviour, or on the political process. The power of the myth disallows consideration of contrary evidence, including the best of scientific data.

All our great cultural stories – our myths – are concoctions of fact, belief, and shared-illusion, shaped and polished by frequent repetition and ritualistic affirmation.

Myth-making is universal to all societies, and stories are the predominant way human beings have communicated values and cultural myths for thousands of years. Nothing much has changed really – although our campfires are now electronic, stories are still how we create and reinforce cultural myths.

This transition we are facing is a social and cultural journey, it is not a rational and technological task.

If you want to change a culture, you have to change its stories.

This is humanity’s ultimate Quest.

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The Story Of Change – Flexing The Citizen Muscle

The media has always been powerful in influencing opinion, awareness and creating change – and so one of the great assets of the internet age is that media can be produced and disseminated by participatory networks of people, who had previously been largely passive receivers and consumers of content in a one-way relationship, from newspaper to reader, from television broadcast to viewer.

One of the best examples of this new, social media is The Story of Stuff, released in 2007 by The Story of Stuff Project in conjunction with Free Range Studios.

The 20 minute animated/live action clip was groundbreaking in its clear, concise presentation of a range of consumption issues across the lifecycle of material use. The video went viral, and has been viewed millions of times. It became a teaching resource in schools, as well as the subject of intense debate.

Several clips followed, including The Story of Cap and Trade, The Story of Bottled Water, The Story of Cosmetics, The Story of ElectronicsThe Story of Broke (a call for a new economy), and The Story of Citizens United vs FEC (although US focused, a universally relevant story about the power of corporations in democracy).

The Project’s latest movie, The Story of Change, has just been been released:

In the 6 minute clip, Annie Leonard challenges ‘green guilt’, and also the ‘laundry lists’ of green tips published in umpteen books and articles back to the 1980s and before:

I’ve read a lot of these: 100 Ways to Save the Planet Without Leaving Your House50 SimpleThings You Can do to Save the EarthThe Little Green Book of Shopping.

I thought they might have the answers, but their tips all start here – with buying better stuff – and they all end here – with recycling all that stuff when I’m done with it.

But when it comes to making change, this story of “going green” – even though we see it everywhere – has some serious shortcomings.

One of the most maddening things about the environment/sustainability movement is the focus on personal responsibility at the expense of system-level social and political change.

Change at the personal level is important both for the impact itself and the social norms it contributes to, and a critical mass of individual consumption decisions can create some practical change, influencing supply chains to respond to their markets.

However to leave the scale of change-making needed to the purchasing power of the individual, who may have neither the time, the inclination or the ability to buy anything other than the cheapest product – let alone critically interpret marketing and media messages – is nothing short of negligent.

As UK journalist and commentator George Monbiot noted:

Green consumerism is a substitute for collective action. No political challenge can be met by shopping.

The onus cannot be on the individual alone, whose choices in everything from transportation to food are constrained or enabled by wider system design eg. how accessible, convenient and affordable public transport is.

One of the main barriers to change is that there is a major disconnect between the scale of the challenge communicated (climate upheaval, species loss) and the prescriptions of things individuals can do (change light bulbs, don’t buy products with palm oil) – while people may accept that ‘every bit counts’, they know in their gut that the response needed is bigger than what they can achieve as individuals.

The Story of Change is successful because it draws on previous cultural references of movements throughout history where great change was achieved – such as the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the movement for independence in India led by Gandhi – and offers a powerful meme as its call to involvement: ‘Flexing the Citizen Muscle’.

cartoon image with left bicep labelled 'citizen muscle' (currently flabby and weak) and right bicep labelled 'consumer muscle' (currently big and strong)

Our consumer muscle, which is fed and exercised constantly, has grown strong. So strong that “consumer” has become our primary identity, our reason for being. We’re told so often that we’re a nation of consumers that we don’t blink when the media use “consumer” and “person” interchangeably.

Meanwhile, our citizen muscle has gotten flabby. There’s no marketing campaign reminding us to engage as citizens. On the contrary, we’re bombarded with lists of simple things we can buy or do to save the planet, without going out of our way or breaking a sweat.

Leonard identifies three things that were common to successful social change movements:

  • Have a Big Idea – they had a big idea, or story, of how things could be better
  • Commit to Work Together – millions of ordinary people who wanted to make these changes didn’t do it alone, they worked together
  • Take Action – they took their big idea, their commitment to work together and took action

It is pleasing to see that Story of Stuff have produced this clip, as it debunks the green shopping/onus on the individual story, and calls on people to activate their role as citizens, not consumers. It will reach a very large audience because of the initiative’s previous successes.

There’s one movie Crux would love to see The Story of Stuff Project and Free Range Studios collaborate on – not only is it a big taboo politically (although it has begun to be seriously questioned since the Global Financial Crisis), but its the story that underpins all the other stories:

The Story of Growth – or preferably, The Story of Post Growth.

Almost every issue The Story of Stuff Project has covered – planned obsolescence of e-waste, carbon and climate change, the take-make-waste of consumer culture, the power of corporations, the call for a new economy – all have at their root an economic system dependent on ever more growth:

Our culture has placed economic growth, as measured by increasing GDP, as a central goal. We have come to equate economic growth, as measured by GDP, with growth in well-being while ignoring the concurrent growth in environmental destruction, stress, alienation, pollution.

Inconveniently, growth is closely linked with the way that today’s economy is structured. We have an economy that needs to increase at an exponential rate of growth to stay afloat (and avoid crashes, job loss, defaults). Yet, in order to grow, the economy needs to grow its use of energy and resources and will increase its impact on the physical environment.

However, maintaining this trajectory is ultimately impossible because the physical and biological capacity of the earth is finite – the planet, it turns out, is not growing any bigger. We’re seeing the effects of the clash between the drive for economic growth with nature’s limits and the environment manifesting as a myriad of ways, such as peak oil and climate change.

The adverse impacts of exponential growth past a certain point are not just environmental.

In a 1999 paper, Clive Hamilton, author of Growth Fetish, also drew a connection between growth past an optimum point, and social decline:

The problem is unemployment; only growth can create the jobs. Schools and hospitals are underfunded; the answer is faster growth. We can’t afford to protect the environment; the solution is more growth. Poverty is entrenched; growth will rescue the poor. Income distribution is unequal; the answer is more growth.

If the answer to the problem is always more growth then who dares ask the question:

What if the problems are caused by economic growth?

The most powerful way to ‘Flex the Citizen Muscle’ would be to go to the source of the symptoms.

In The Story of Change, Leonard rightly points out that ‘Living our values in small ways is a great place to start, but a terrible place to stop’ and that successful social change movements did not ‘tinker around the edges, they went to the heart of the problem – even when it means changing systems that don’t want to be changed.’

So while ‘The Story of’ movies have been a great start in stimulating debate and engaging people, it would be truly groundbreaking to see a movie about ‘The Story of Growth’ – to tackle the issue that goes right into the DNA of the political economy which delivers us the things the Story of Stuff Project has documented so far.

What ‘Story of’ movie would you like to see next? Is there a particular issue you think would lend itself to the format?

In what kinds of ways can people ‘flex their citizen muscle’?

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