Monday, 25 April 2005


Until recently I had seen this word only on the internet and never in print, Since it seemed to be usually associated with lists of fatuous questions and answers I guessed that it was not one that I would ever want to use, so for a long time I didn’t bother to look it up. When I did, I found to my astonishment that a meme is “A contagious information pattern that replicates by symbiotically infecting human minds and altering their behaviour, causing them to propagate the pattern. (The word "meme" was coined by Richard Dawkins, by analogy with "gene".) Individual slogans, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions are typical memes. An idea or information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else, or to otherwise expose someone else to it”.

Well, fine, that's clear enough; bully for Dawkins. It seems that “memes can comprise any piece of information that can possibly transfer between two minds—idea, thought, joke, song, dance, habit, even state of mood”. Wikipedia gives twenty-four example of types of meme, and anyone who is filled with excitement by the whole concept can consult Glenn Grant’s Memetic Lexicon for a more detailed account
Reading all this made me more than ever certain that it is unlikely that I shall ever want to use the word (after today, that is), but last week I had a charming email from a young Canadian (which is what prompted this post), noting that Other Men's Flowers had never featured any meme questions and listing some for me to answer. I was happy to oblige (for a small fee) since they were polite easy ones about desert island CDs and so on, and not the intrusive kind which attempt to delve deep into one’s psyche.
It then struck me that perhaps, since OMF is The Blog That Is All Things To All Men, I should join in this meme caper and post one from time to time. A “contagious information pattern” which often appears in teenage blogs is 100 Things About Me, and though I am not a teenager this seemed a simple one for me to start with.

However, I found there just aren’t that many Things About Me worth listing. After No. 14 I was really beginning to scrape the bottom of the barrel, putting down Things like “Both my elbows are exactly the same size” and “I really like string”. Clearly, this meme was not going to be one that “replicates by symbiotically infecting human minds and altering their behaviour”, and I would become a laughing stock wherever memeticists foregather.

So I gave up the idea. This will be my last word on memes; anyone saddened to hear this and seeking further enlightenment should turn to Metamagical Themas (NY, Basic Books, 1985) by the Pulitzer Prizewinner, Guggenheim Fellow and all-round Top Brain Douglas Hofstadter:

(You can tell, can't you?)

His book deals with memes and other cognate subjects less frivolously and with much more academic rigour than I can muster. Bully for him too.


bonhead said...

But wait, Tony no! not the last word---please! what of the term "screaming meme" Tony? Surely you've heard the expression before. The last time I heard it, it used was by the "Crypt Keeper" introducing an episode of "Tales from the Crypt" years ago on televison. He said something like, "you're not a screaming meme are you?"
Hmmm....wonder what the etymology on that is? And what do you make of this website: claiming that "There are many ways to spread a meme"--and where you download graphics of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" to "create your own screaming meme"? Perhaps now you'll reconsider and embrace the meme Tony. Ah...well perhaps not then...

Tony said...

Well, thank you for all that but, as you say, perhaps not.
Look, if you're going to go through all the posts in OMF (there are 246) and leave a comment on every one, I shall have to set aside May and June to respond to them.