October 26, 2004
Buzzing the Web on a Meme Machine
he Web is obsessed with anything that spreads, whether it's a virus, a blog or a rumor. And so the Internet loves memes.
Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in his 1976 book, "The Selfish Gene." Memes (the word rhymes with dreams and is short for mimemes, from the word mimetic) are infectious ideas or any other things that spread by imitation from person to person - a jingle, a joke, a fashion, the smiley face or the concept of hell. Memes propagate from brain to brain much as genes spread from body to body. Thus, Mr. Dawkins wrote, they really "should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically."
The World Wide Web is the perfect Petri dish for memes. Wikipedia, the free collaborative online encyclopedia, calls the Internet "the ultimate meme vector."
Meme and memetics (the study of memes, not to be confused with mimetics) were once terms batted around only by thinkers like Mr. Dawkins, the philosopher Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, the author of "The Meme Machine." Now the word "meme" is part of many would-be-trendy Web addresses.
A site called memes.org says it tests "new, old and emergent memes that are either being flown as a trial balloon or are sweeping the memesphere, the mediasphere or the buzzsphere.'' In fact much of the site is a grab bag of blogs, quotes and theories about politics and culture. Another Web site, iampariah.com, advertises a meme list that turns out to be just a dispensary of lame topics for bloggers.
Other Web sites, without blaring it in their addresses, track certain types of memes. Vmyths.com follows popular hoaxes and myths about computer viruses that propagate on the Web. Snopes.com is a clearinghouse of urban legends. Here you can see whether various rumors are true or not. Was Harlan Ellison fired from Disney for joking about an animated porn film? Yes. Can Michael Jackson's phone number be found in the bar code on his "Thriller" album? No.
Streetmemes.com, sponsored by Eyebeam, an art and technology center in Manhattan, tracks any "sticker, stencil or poster that can spread a single image around the world." At this Web site you can browse a selection of easy-to-spread street graphics or add your own.
The problem is that many of the street memes posted are not really memes at all. For example, the site posts only one instance of "Business Yo," the figure of a beaten-down businessman stenciled in black on a yellow ground with a rain cloud over his head. Maybe the image could spread on the street, but it hasn't yet. It's a meme wanna-be.
Can a wanna-be meme become a real meme? People on the Web are doggedly pursuing this very question right now.
One Web site, Quotesexchange.com, offers to help make your blogs more visible - that is, to turn them into memes. "Let's help the smaller blogs get more visibility!" the site says, and it even ventures a hypothesis as to why some blogs are ignored. It's not because they're boring. No. "The reason is that the smaller blogs don't have enough links pointing to them."
To remedy this, the site recommends something that sounds suspiciously like chain-letter tactics. You, the neglected blogger, simply post your blog along with a string of addresses of popular sites, adding your own to the end. "As the meme spreads onwards from your blog, so will your URL," the site promises. Soon it will appear near the top of Google searches.
In other words, you add some meme gas to your blog to help it spread through the culture. The non-meme that has been given meme fuel is called a GoMeme. This is the invention of Nova Spivack, who runs a Web site called mindingtheplanet .net. The unintended model here seems to be Sylvester McMonkey McBean, the Dr. Seuss character who invented a machine to put stars on the bellies of non-star-bellied Sneeches.
Mr. Spivack has made four versions of the GoMeme - partly, to test how real memes, natural memes, spread. At least one site has analyzed the results of the various GoMemes that Mr. Spivack has tested. On nodalpoint.org you can read "Analysis of an Artificial Meme." The conclusion? "The GoMeme experiment did not help elucidate any useful properties of a meme."
Can the spread of memes be stopped? At memecentral.com, run by Richard Brodie, the author of "Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme," visitors learn how to recognize and resist mind viruses - not to be confused with Internet viruses. "These messages all have one thing in common: they contain compelling messages or memes that grab our attention and persuade us to pass them on."
The idea of the meme has, itself, become a meme. Spread the word.
Some of the Web sites offering information on memes: