Memes and Cultural Organisms

In biology, the fundamental building blocks of complex organisms like ourselves are replicating DNA segments called genes. A cultural theory, called memetics, states that there also exists fundamental building blocks in culture, and this blocks are known as memes.

We study memes from an websites where users can create, combine, evolve and extinct memes, called Quickmeme.com. Two examples of memes are:

Screenshot from 2013-05-17 15:15:43

Two examples of similar memes that user created in the website Quickmeme.com

The current studies about memes focus on social networks. They are interested in understanding how the social dynamics affect the spread of memes in the human minds.

We, instead, study the direct interactions between memes, seeking their fundamental characteristics, without looking at social networks. We analyzed hundreds of such memes, with tens of thousand variations created by users. Our results show that:

  • Just like genes, we are able to prove that memes competes one against the other.
  • Just like genes, we also find traces of collaboration between memes.
  • Collaboration do no end in simple pairs of memes. Memes clump up and literally form cultural organisms.

What does it mean? It means that it is possible that the complex culture we live in (songs, books, cathedrals and so on) is the result of dynamics that closely resemble the ones among genes in the primeval broth.

We are able to define some characteristics of memes. They can be prone to competition or collaboration. Or they can bring the collaboration to a next level and create a large cluster of collaborating memes: a cultural organism.

Using these characteristics, we are able to predict if the meme will be a successful meme or not. A successful meme is a meme that is preserved in the minds of the users of the websites, and they use it often.

memetree

The decision tree describing the odds of success of memes, given their characteristics.

In the picture, we report a visualization about it. You can read the probabilities of success and the characteristics of the memes. Memes are successful in 35.47% of the cases. But lower popularity peaks, high competing strategies and being in a meme organism raise this probability up to 80.3%.

For more, see our full paper, Competition and Success in the Meme Pool: a Case Study on Quickmeme.com. You can also check further information on my website: www.michelecoscia.com.

Michele Coscia, CID – Harvard University

3 thoughts on “Memes and Cultural Organisms

  1. Interesting treatment of memes as biological components, which shape our cultural memory through evolutionary processes. Surprisingly, being part of a memes “organism” contribute relative little (only 5%) to the success rate of memes, compared to other characteristics such as lower peak and high competing strategy. Why do you think is the reason behind memes being less “social” themselves?

  2. I can only speculate about this for now, but I think it has to do with the fact that the memes I’m studying are very simple.

    In my study, they resemble more monocellular bacteria in a Petri dish than, say, a multicellular C. Elegans or a fruit fly. These bacteria are very fast-paced and their survival strategy doesn’t involve usually the creation of a large organism. So do the memes that I studied, whose life span ranges from days to few years.

    On the other hand, you can consider a religion as an example of a very large cultural animal, composed by thousands or millions of memes and whose lifespan can get to several millennia. In a time span like this, only the collaboration in organisms can be a sustainable strategy. If my memes are monocellular bacteria, a religion may be one of those very long-living giant tortoises.

  3. Pingback: Los memes más exitosos son constantes y van en grupo por Internet | La Universal radio

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