This article is highly experimental and has been published merely as a thought-provoking piece; therefore, please forgive any rambling that takes place throughout. – The Management
Ever since I got involved with ROFLcon (I attended the very first one and have been working with the team on hosting the smaller ROFLthing events since), I have had Internet culture research on my mind. Tim Hwang and I have talked over potentially writing co-writing a book on Internet memes, but recently the project has sunk below our interest in meme research, specifically that of engineering. But ever since “meme” because the Internet buzzword of our generation, I’ve constantly been at odds with the odd term. What exactly is a meme? Why are we using that specific word? And what do we learn about the Internet by studying memes, or vice versa?
If you haven’t decided to discover the term’s etymology, I’ll try to provide a basic explanation. Trying to explain the meaning of meme by looking at Wikipedia illustrates the issue of defining the word: throwing “meme” into Google provides you with both two articles on Wikipedia, the first entitled Meme and the second, Internet Meme. The discussion of meme here draws from the article Internet Meme; however, we cannot ignore the history behind the former article, especially since work around Internet memes borrows heavily from studies of memetics.
The etymology of the word meme is derived from the biological term gene. Merriam-Webster defines gene as “a specific sequence of nucleotides in DNA or RNA that is located usually on a chromosome and that is the functional unit of inheritance controlling the transmission and expression of one or more traits by specifying the structure of a particular polypeptide and especially a protein or controlling the function of other genetic material,” but I prefer Wikipedia’s simplistic explanation better: “Genes hold… information to build and maintain… cells and pass genetic traits to offspring.” Examining Wikipedia’s explanation, we can understand a gene in two ways: 1) it contains information, and 2) it transfers that information.
The term meme was coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his book, “The Selfish Gene,” (1976) to explain the movement of ideas and the formation of culture through the metaphor of biological processes.
To elucidate the construction of the metaphor, Susan Blackmore, in her paper Evolution and Memes: The human brain as a selective imitation device, writes, “As Darwin (1859) first pointed out, if you have creatures that vary, and if there is selection so that only some of those creatures survive, and if the survivors pass on to their offspring whatever it was that helped them survive, then those offspring must, on average, be better adapted to the environment in which that selection took place than their parents were… If you have the three requisites – variation, selection and heredity, then you must get evolution… This [evolutionary] algorithm depends on something being copied, and Dawkins calls this the replicator. A replicator can therefore be defined as any unit of information which is copied with variations or errors, and whose nature influences its own probability of replication (Dawkins 1976).” Quoting Dawkins, Blackmore names the element of transmission shared by genes and memes: they both replicate with variations. Replication with variation is then how Dawkins explains his concept of the evolution of culture, how ideas move, the meme: “The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”
To explain the actions of a meme, Dawkins illustrates them once again with the biological analogy: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” However, Blackmore points out the difficulty of Dawkins’ explanation, writing, “The problem is this. If memes worked like genes then we should expect to find close analogies between the two evolutionary systems. But, although both are replicators, they work quite differently and for this reason we should be very cautious of meme-gene analogies. I suggest there is no clean equivalent of the genotype/phenotype distinction in memetics because memes are a relatively new replicator and have not yet created for themselves this highly efficient kind of system. Instead there is a messy system in which information is copied all over the place by many different means. I previously gave the example of someone inventing a new recipe for pumpkin soup and passing it on to various relatives and friends (Blackmore 1999). The recipe can be passed on by demonstration, by writing the recipe on a piece of paper, by explaining over the phone, by sending a fax or e-mail, or (with difficulty) by tasting the soup and working out how it might have been cooked.” She counters, “The whole point of memes is to see them as information being copied in an evolutionary process (i.e. with variation and selection). Given the complexities of human life, information can be copied in myriad ways. We do a disservice to the basic concept of the meme if we try to restrict it to information residing only inside people’s heads.” However, I believe that Blackmore’s statement, at least in an age where the Internet is general, accessible, and popular, is fairly known and thence a bit redundant given common sense. The one element that can be gleaned by her comment, though, is that while the transfer of ideas undergoes change (“variation”), it also undergoes “selection,” meaning that people eventually weed out ideas from the initial batch. This counteracts the stereotypical marketer’s view of the meme as “viral” because of the possibility for an idea to be discarded, rather than passed on to other people.
In relation to Dawkins’ explanation, the problem for me is not that he explains the concept of the meme in terms of a biological metaphor, but that people examining memes today have latched onto the concept of biology not as a means of elucidating memes but of approaching and investigating them. Case in point would be Mike Godwin’s WIRED article about memes, in which he writes, “A “meme,” of course, is an idea that functions in a mind the same way a gene or virus functions in the body. And an infectious idea (call it a “viral meme”) may leap from mind to mind, much as viruses leap from body to body.” In terms of the definition, Dawkins’ use of “brain” immediately calls researchers of memes to focus on the way the mind works and how ideas transfer between brains. However, I think that a fundamental change must be made here, and that is to examine memes as transferred between not physical brains but nebulous minds. By this I mean not that the physical nature of the persons involved in the transmission of ideas should be emphasized but instead we should focus on the (sociological?) relations between people to understand culture.
Second, Dawkins explains the meme concept by suggesting that memes might take on an entity of their own, in that “memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.” Unlike some members of the Free Culture movement, I do not believe that information wants to be “free.” In fact, I believe that information does not move at all, at least by its own volition. Instead, people move information. People want information to be free, so people move ideas to match a system that lets them be free. Therefore, my thesis might be stated as people move information, and out of that statement I want to understand memes as people pushing ideas to other people — not a very “biological” concept in the least.
The interesting thing about the Internet is that it is full of people. However, only in the last few years have people been recognized as a presence, though of course one still minor to the extent of information on the Web. Still, they’ve finally be noticed, particularly since the spread of the popular buzzword, Web 2.0. However, the basic theories around the movement of information through the Internet does not seem to entirely account for the presence of people. Recent publications have begun to approach it, like Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, but I feel that the text as well as projects like the Berkman Center’s Internet and Democracy project (to use as an example, not to call it out in a negative light) only approach the human element of the Internet as an affect of the Internet rather than a fundamental part or function of it.
Tim has talked many times about Yochai Benkler‘s Layers of Communication, which illustrates the structure of the Internet and how information moves across it. However, recently at SXSW Tim presented a panel on the future of the memescape, and he had to somehow account for the emergence of memes in real life. How else to do so but apply a human layer at some point to Benkler’s equation. Of course, the human element applies all over the above graphic: people create and set up the physical layer; people code the websites and applications; people upload and submit the information. We could think of each color tab with a tiny orange piece attached that would be the “human knob.”
But I think we need to think of a human layer as integral to the structure of the Internet, specifically a human layer separate from the other three tiers. The graph would then look like this:
Thinking about the structure of the Internet this way makes sense. The physical layer provides the module on which the Internet runs and users interact (eg., through fingers on a keyboard and looking at a screen, which then travels over a wire to other fingers and eyes), the code forms what we recognize at the Internet’s visual structure (as well as the inner workings of the Web via applications), the content is the information that we want/need to see, and the human layer moves all of that information through that code over the physical elements. to other humans.
Internet futurists have already attempted to tear apart the structure that I am proposing here. I present as evidence the semantic web. Basically the semantic web is an attempt to create an Internet in which the human layer no longer needs to exist. To explain that statement further, essentially computers cannot read all of the information on the Web, because it was built by people for people. For example, proof might be Google search: although it helps us find a lot of wonderful things, it is not necessarily the best method for finding everything that we need. To combat that imperfection, the semantic web was created to provide information in a format that machines could easily read, thus helping humans find information faster. We can think of the semantic web as hacking the human layer of the web by rerouting that layer through the code layer.
However, I don’t believe it to be that simple a solution. My assumption is that to find information, we need to find people. I can immediately dismiss my previous statement by saying that the Internet already allows that to be possible. Simply reading this article means that you have found information without having had to find me to provide you with that information. However, I will rephrase my statement to make more sense: To find the information we want, we need to find people.
It is here that my research with the anime fandom in America first coincides with my research on Internet culture. They link in two ways (the second of which I will examine later). First, in trying to find information for my research, I have had to contact multiple people, because it is essentially not on the Web. Currently, we rely on information that already exists when we search for it online. The semantic web, too, relies on the fact that the information its code provides to users of the semantic web already exists. If it does not, the code (basically, XML) must be applied to the information as it is uploaded to the Internet. One of Tim’s most recent questions has been about the potential for an Internet EPA. Basically, such an organization (?) would commit to providing relevant information of quality for users of the Web. However, to find information that does not exist on the Web yet, we need to go to people that have or will provide that information. A basic issue right now with finding relevant information of quality is that if you stumble upon a blog that you feel provides you with that information, will the author(s) of that blog continue to provide you with the same quality or relevance of information. This might be a common issue with communication in general, but especially so on the Internet because direct contact is usually not available for both communicative ends (whether or not the author is anonymous). Also, if you wanted to find a certain piece of information and it did not exist, how do you go about finding the person(s) that would provide it to you?
The aspect of connecting not with information but people is where the human layer of the Internet especially comes into play, and where I believe research on Internet memes needs to focus.
First, though, I must reexamine the concept of the meme to apply it to the Internet. As I stated before, Wikipedia draws on two concepts of meme: Meme and Internet Meme. The Wikipedia entry for Internet Meme makes a bold statement: “The term is a reference to the concept of memes, although this concept refers to a much broader category of cultural information.” The author here suggests that Internet memes do not encapsulate the entirety of cultural information that exists outside of the Internet. And, actually, I agree. To clarify my agreement, I would simply state that Internet memes deal with popular culture.
My statement requires two explications. First, to distinguish between memes and Internet memes, I suggest that we can look at the concept of the “meme” as a movement, while “Internet meme” is a manifestation of that movement. When we say meme, we mean an idea, a cultural product, but also that it moves in a certain way. When we say Internet meme, the nominative “Internet” does not denote that the movement of the meme relies on some new Internet-based form of movement; rather, the Internet relies on popular culture, and hence an Internet meme is a meme of popular culture. Second, to explain the phrase “meme of popular culture,” I must define popular culture. However, I will not define it as much as name criteria for the term’s application. Popular culture depends on access and audience. More specifically, the culture of popular culture is that which is accessible by the general populace (in that they can interact with it), and it is culture to which the audience relates. Of course, not all popular culture might be considered “popular” culture given certain contexts: for example, a movie that can be seen in a theater in the city might not be available in the countryside, but it is generally accessible nonetheless.
Now, by “meme of popular culture,” I mean that an Internet meme is a piece of popular culture that moves like a meme, in that its audience replicates it and is selective of it. Taking the Internet meme as a popular culture meme, though, helps us understand the human layer and thence the movement of communication and information online, because when we observe the production of memes, they usually derive from popular (widespread) media or popular (favored) ideas. The importance of popular culture to meme studies is that it brings attention to the audience, or basically the people moving around these bits of culture.
It is particularly important to look at the concept of audience when examining memes because the Internet warps the real-life model, in that it can easily be analyzed. Online, with the potential for anonymity, finding reliable suppliers of information proves difficult. However, when we examine sites of cultural production online, specifically for memes, one of the origins of course is the bulletin board system known as 4chan.
Before tackling the structure of 4chan, I’ll mention that here we now approach the second relation to my research on the anime fandom: the ability to compare systems. When I study anime in the United States, I must also take into account its origins in Japan, which boasts its own fan culture, which even today influences the American fan base. A similar thing happens with 4chan, whose origins were in the Japanese board system, 2channel. Over at Metagold: A Research Blog About Nico Nico Douga (the Japanese video service similar to YouTube), the author writes, “X gives me first a basic introduction into the workings of the legendary BBS (Bulletin board system) 2channel, the direct predecessor of Nico Nico Douga. 2channel is important for Nico Nico Douga in many ways. Most importantly, it has made the culture of anonymous posting popular – it might indeed be a Western misconception to see Nico Nico Douga as a form of Youtube plus BBS. More precisely, it is a BBS plus video. The BBS culture was there first, and it remains the central driving force of Nico Nico Douga… Posts on 2channel normally only appear under the IP address –. Entries are therefore not only anonymous in the sense that they are hidden under a pseudonym. Normally it is impossible to connect the many entries that one user has made. Theoretically, people can also create an identity, but this is tricky, and hardly ever done. 2channel is all about radical anonymity, and this was its great revolution.” In relation to 4chan, then, the anonymity of the users defines the structure. Essentially, a user who posts information on the anonymous board need not worry about the implications of those reading his posts. Therefore, 4chan and 2channel act as a sort of semi-human-layered system, where the system connects the users to those who want to find relevant information in real time, but without consequences to the identity of the user.
The reverse of a anonymous system like 2channel or 4chan would provide the information seeker with more information about the information provider, and thus give the information seeker more clues in determining whether the information provider is worth tracking. A system that resembles this model would be Twitter, where a user is not obligated to follow any other user unless he wants to read updates. Therefore, a user on Twitter chooses the information he wants to follow, with the ability to stop following a user as soon as that user’s ability to provide relevant information lessens. Another interesting aspect of Twitter in relation to relevant information is the limitation of characters, which usually forces users to abbreviate any URLs they post. Because of that abbreviation, users may end up clicking on links to unknown destinations, relying on trust in the user who originally posted the link. I have found myself clicking on a message with just a TinyURL link with no indication where it goes, because I believe the user to be providing me with material relevant to my interests or needs.
The interesting thing about Twitter is that it is fundamentally hackable. Two simple experiments come to mind: 1) The creation of a fake person that provides users with relevant information, and 2) The existence of a real person that bombards users with utterly irrelevant information (by means, for example, of constant @replies, which are now always picked up by the @yourname aggregator). Both of these experiments play with the idea that information is moved around by people.
However, Twitter does not necessarily deal with memetic movement, particularly with regard to Internet memes. The problem, though, is that the definition of meme is slowly changing in the popular lexicon of the Internet. danah boyd recently posted a link on Twitter, commenting, “unbelievable must-view video: http://bit.ly/TnRKo (@ethanz notes that this is the kind of video meme that makes one proud of the interwebz)”. The link’s destination, a video on YouTube, does not seem to fit the concept of the Internet meme as a piece of popular culture that has been replicated and selected. However, it certainly has been repeatedly selected as an item of interest and the link to the video has been replicated across the Internet as people share it amongst friends (or strangers).
The video on YouTube, of Susan Boyle, a recent contestant on Britain’s Got Talent, recently swept the Web and has garnered almost ten million page views as of this writing. In less than thirty minutes this afternoon, I saw it jump over one million page views. The interesting thing about the video, though, is that it mirrors another video phenomenon that hit YouTube back in 2007, where Paul Potts sang an outstanding opera audition on the same show, in a similar lifestyle situation (he was a cell phone salesman; Susan is unemployed; both singers ended up outright shocking the audience). For meme researchers, the link between these videos is key, because it’s very difficult to match similar situations of instantaneous popularity online. Just as Paul Potts had taken the Internet by storm two years ago, so have Susan Boyle’s fans set up multiple fansites for her to spread her name around, widening her viewing audience. If it’s possible to track the people who move around this information on the Web, it would be a celebration for Internet researchers. Meme researchers: pay attention here!
The basic theory of this article states that a new layer of the Internet structure must be analyzed: the human element of the Web that moves information around. I believe that studies like meme research will become a new aspect of fan studies research, and I hope to begin research into that area as I continue my research into the American anime fandom this summer.