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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How Working Less Can Give Us More

red graffiti on a white wall with Anarchy symbol 'it's tough to make a living when all we do is work'

In ‘The Story of Change’, Annie Leonard pointed out that our ‘consumer muscle’ has grown strong, but as a consequence of overworking it, our ‘citizen muscle’ has gone flabby. We’re less active, engaged citizens.

But how can we be engaged citizens if so much of our time is taken up with paid work? Is there another way to structure our lives?

US author and documentary film maker John de Graaf recently gave two public talks in Adelaide, South Australia entitled ‘Shorter Work Time: The Missing Link Between Wellbeing and Sustainability’.

In Australia on a speaking tour for his new book ‘What’s The Economy For, Anyway?’de Graaf drew the links between quality of life, fairness and equity and sustainability by speaking of how society’s goals should be to achieve ‘the greatest good, for the greatest number, over the longest run’.

The ‘greatest good’ reflects all the quality of life issues, ‘the greatest number’ is about justice and fairness, and ‘the longest run’ is about sustainability – if we continue with an economic paradigm that results in overconsumption and climate change, then we could undermine our other intentions.

de Graaf used examples from the US, Europe and Asia to show how nations like Bhutan have enshrined ‘Gross National Happiness’ in their constitution rather than GDP as the primary indicator of success (ie. choosing to measure ‘better’ rather than ‘bigger’); how as a result of the financial crisis, Californian workers who were required to take a small cut in pay in exchange for an extra day off a week chose to keep their four day work week for less pay; and how many of our current societal concerns – overwork, underemployment, having time for family, friends, interests, exercise and sleep – could all be addressed by shortening paid work time.
(58 minutes – talk 35 mins, Q&A 23 mins – this will shortly be available on YouTube, so please check back soon)

He acknowledged that this was not the only approach needed, and that for many people – especially those working long hours or more than one job to make ends meet – other measures such as an increase in the minimum wage would be needed.

Professor Barbara Pocock, Director of the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia, also expresses these sentiments in her book ‘Time Bomb’ – right now, sustainable living requires constant consciousness, and because conscious effort requires more time and attention, habit takes precedence over considered approach:

Time is a resource that makes change possible and without it, new ways of living are crowded out – decisions to reassess behaviour and do things differently require an investment of time and thought.

Juliet Schor, Professor of Sociology at Boston College and author of ‘Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth’, draws the links between time, healthy communities and wellbeing, and like de Graaf, argues it would be wise to convert increased productivity into more time rather than more consumption:

As more and more labor time went into the market, time for community disappeared.  Social ties frayed and neighborhoods hollowed out. But social relationships are a potent form of economic wealth, which people can turn to during financial instability or adverse climate events. People who have strong social connections, or what’s called social capital, fare much better when times get rough. Plenitude involves re-building local economic interdependence by trading services, sharing assets, and relying on each other in good, as well as hard times.

simple graph with 'respect' along x axis and 'transactions' along y axis - at top of 'x' axis 'citizens', at end of y axis 'consumers'

Image credit

Author Charles Eisenstein speaks of the relationship between time, money, community and the ‘gift’ economy (which is the oldest kind of economy, having persisted for millennia and which is still with all of us today):

…community is nearly impossible in a highly monetized society like our own. That is because community is woven from gifts, which is ultimately why poor people often have stronger communities than rich people. If you are financially independent, then you really don’t depend on your neighbors—or indeed on any specific person—for anything. You can just pay someone to do it, or pay someone else to do it…The less we use money, the less time we need to spend earning it, and the more time we have to contribute to the gift economy, and then receive from it. It is a virtuous circle.

If we truly want to flex our citizen muscle – to have an active, engaged citizenry, and to evolve sustainable futures – then one of the most important keys is to find ways to help people take back their time.

Thanks to Libby Dowling and Jonathan Pheasant of the University of Adelaide’s Ecoversity Program, Jen Manning and Barbara Pocock of the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work + Life and Zero Waste SA for supporting John’s visit to Adelaide.

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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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