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Someone forwards you an email joke. Your boss tells you about a great new Thai restaurant. Your kid comes home from school singing the praises of the latest Nintendo DS. You’ve just been infected with three memes.
The ethnologist Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’. He shortened it from ‘mimeme’, which was Greek for ‘something imitated’. A meme is a virally-transmitted unit of cultural information. Memes are everywhere, and have existed throughout human history. Catchphrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions are typical memes. A chain-letter is a meme, as is the concept of a meme itself. The most important thing about a meme, and the only way it can survive, is that it’s compelling enough to pass on. No one wants to retell a really bad joke, and nobody hums a tuneless song after they hear it. Memes thrive because they’re worth talking about.
Persistent and Amplified
The Internet is the natural habitat for memes. Why? Because the Web has evolved into the world’s biggest, fastest information exchange. Concepts can emerge, evolve, permeate and perish in days or weeks. The growing popularity of weblogs, online diaries and other frequently-updated sites combined with traditional communication mediums like email and instant-messaging means that a compelling idea can reach hundreds of thousands of people within hours.
In the online world, memes are the currency of word-of-mouth marketing. The interesting thing about word-of-mouth on the Web is that it’s persistent and amplifed. If you tell your sister about a great new shoe shop, no one else hears that communication. If you have a blog about high heels (don’t laugh – there are probably several thousand on the subject), and you write about a new shoe shop, there are two important differences: your mention of the shop lasts as long as you maintain the website, and so can be accessed by readers browsing your archives and arriving via search engines. More importantly, your voice is amplified from a one-to-one relationship to one-to-many. Instead of just telling your sister, you’re telling an audience of 10 or 500 or 50,000.
Memes for Good and Evil
Companies create memes – intentionally and accidentally, and citizens of the Web – both casual users and hardcore bloggers alike – decide whether they explode in popularity or die in the petri dish.
On June 21, a Dell laptop spontaneously ignited during a conference in Japan. Someone took photos of the incident – people standing back as the laptop is engulfed in flames – and passed them on to the popular British technology news site The Inquirier, who published them. Since then, many popular technology sites have written up the story, and thousands of bloggers have referred to the incident.
The idea of the exploding laptop spread from a single person – a conference attendee – to a single source (The Inquirer) before mutating into an epidemic of activity across the Web.