Lately I’ve been reading a lot, and writing some, about memes. It’s an interesting concept, but I’m a bit discomforted by the way that many writers seem to accept memes as a fact, rather than as a useful analogy. This worries me. When analogies get taken too literally they tend to get pushed too far at which point they fall apart. This can appear to discredit or devalue the usefulness of the entire analogy. I don’t want that to happen with the “meme” analogy I think it’s too potentially useful to people who care about communication.
Therefore, I want to consider for a minute the definition of “meme”…
According to dictionary.com, a meme is: “an idea considered as a replicator, esp. with the connotation that memes parasitize people into propagating them much as viruses do. “
In other words, memes are ideas that replicate themselves like genes or viruses. They spread and mutate throughout a community or across communities, through communication channels such as speech, writing, art, graffiti, or the internet.
Of course, the larger issue to keep in mind is that memes are not a fact. Rather, the meme concept is a popular analogy. Every analogy has its uses and limitations. Analogies exist to bridge the gap between areas that we already know and have experienced to new, unfamiliar territory. However, analogies are only comparisons, not equations. If you try to stretch an analogy past the point that it fits reality, it will inevitably tear.
People tend to react negatively when a high-profile analogy or model that is generally touted as fact is revealed to have reached the limit of its applicability to reality. We’ve seen this happen in psychology how many publicly credible psychologists are talking about “penis envy” these days?
Here’s how it works: Eventually, zealots of a particular analogy rabidly expound on that analogy in ways that clearly conflict with reality. Ridicule and embarrassment ensue. The validity of the entire analogy is publicly questioned, and generally devalued. When that happens, people who value their public appearance of credibility tend to distance themselves from the maligned analogy. They quickly develop new analogies and models which may or may not be as useful as the discredited ones. Ultimately, this hobbles the progress of inquiry. The “experts” have to keep starting over from scratch in order to maintain their public image, because it’s hard for them to openly salvage much from a discredited analogy or model. It all has to be repackaged in the current garb of credibility.
I actually like the meme analogy/model very much. I think it has the potential to be an incredibly useful tool to help us understand how communication and learning happen which can, in turn, help us to put those uniquely human abilities to better use, and avoid some of the tragedies that occur when communication goes awry or breaks down. I’d hate for us to lose the value of this particular line of inquiry just because someday “meme” might become a dirty word due to blatant abuse by zealots.
Therefore with any discussion of memes, I’d ask meme enthusiasts to keep the word “like” in mind. In the meme analogy/model, ideas are viewed as behaving LIKE genes or viruses in many ways. It’s not that they are physical entities with physical traits. It’s just a comparison. It’s a bridge to expand our collective inquiry into new territory. Don’t confuse it with the real world.
Remember that the meme analogy attempts to apply principles and ideas from science and medicine (specifically physics, biology, and epidemiology) to non-physical entities (ideas). Inevitably, this will not be a perfect fit, because ideas are not physical entities. Ideas are intangible, yet they have tangible effects which conceivably could be tracked and quantified. This study might enhance how people think, learn, and communicate and ultimately the actions we take in the real world.
All this reminds me of my initial frustration with the basic economics course I took in college. From the first day of course, I was rankled by the fact that every principle of economics presented in the textbook was preface with the caveat “all else being equal.” Hey, my logical mind screamed, all else is NEVER equal! Well, yeah. Every economic transaction and system is unique; there are infinite permutations and exceptions. Still, if I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to accept “all else being equal,” I never would have learned some very useful economic principles that generally do play out in the real world.
So use the meme analogy to your heart’s content. Play with it, analyze it, explore it, challenge it. Just don’t mistake it for reality. Preserve its usefulness by respecting its limits.