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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.
That meme was bad news for Dell, but plenty of companies use online memes for effective promotional purposes. If an online game or gimmick is interesting enough to email to your friends or blog about, then it doesn’t matter if it’s made by Coke or a bored teenager in a garage in Wisconsin.
Here are some recent examples of online memes that worked for the organizations that created them:
- Subservient Chicken – A website where users make an actor in a chicken suit complete various actions by typing commands. Also, a viral promotion for Burger King’s chicken sandwiches.
- Baitcar.com – Vancouver-area law enforcement agencies set up a series of ‘bait cars’ to catch car thieves. The cars are equipped with video cameras, and the most entertaining of the resulting videos are posted to Baitcar.com, which received 25,000 visitors in its first week.
- The Shining Redux – A contest held by the Association of Independent Creative Editors led to a clever re-cut trailer for The Shining, turning the film into a feel-good romantic comedy.
Case Study – The Epidemiology of iCryptex.com
Internet memes usually start when someone – an individual or an organization – makes something remarkable (literally, something worth remarking upon) and releases it to the world. But how do memes get released, and how do they spread?
On a whim, after coming home from the movie The Da Vinci Code, I created iCryptex.com. It’s a one page satirical website that makes light of Apple’s cultish fanbase, making jokes like "So Dark the Con of Mac" that referred to Dan Brown’s book and the subsequent movie.
iCryptex.com makes an ideal Internet meme case study because:
- I created it, so I’m completely familiar with its origins
- It’s a single-page site
- It has an extremely short life-span – only as long as the film is popular and in wide release.
Just like diseases, memes need to get transmitted. In the case of iCryptex.com, I emailed the authors of a half dozen popular Apple blogs. I also wrote about it on my own site.
Three popular Apple blogs covered the story immediately. If I was ‘Patient Zero’, then these sites (The Unofficial Apple Weblog, The Apple Blog and Wired’s Cult of Mac) are Patients One, Two and Three. Along with my own site, they’re the sources for the 40,000 people who visited iCryptex.com over the next four weeks.
The following diagrams provides a view into how the the iCryptex.com meme spread.
By examining the available web analytics data about where they came from and their behaviour on the site, we can draw some informative conclusions about Internet memes.
- A few popular sites can spread infections rapidly – Those 40,000 visitors all originated with six email messages and a post on my personal site. Do your research, pick the most relevant and popular sites, and start with them.
- The ‘long tail’ matters – Only 16% of all visitors came directly from one of those four originating sites. The vast majority of traffic came from over 500 additional, less-popular sites and other sources. A meme builds your web presence one visitor at a time.
- We can’t penetrate Internet dark matter – I use the term ‘dark matter’ to refer to alternative, unmeasurable paths to the site. Many visitors, for example, transmitted and received the meme through email. Others used online chat clients like MSN or Yahoo Messenger. Ensure your meme is easily explained for these communicators.
- Social bookmarking matters, sometimes – Memes are often tracked on popular social bookmarking sites. The site that referred the most visitors? StumbleUpon, a venerable website that helps users make discoveries online. On the other hand, only about 300 visitors came from the Web’s most popular site of this type, digg.com. That’s because the site never made the front page of digg.com, the result of which sees several hundreds of thousands of visitors to a site, often crashing it with the so-called ‘digg effect’. Don’t ignore the social bookmarking sites, but don’t obsess over them either.
- Be multilingual – If you have a global audience (and you probably do), try to build memes which either transcend language, or are available in popular languages. At least 20% of the visitors to iCryptex.com came from a non-English website. When done right, memes can dramatically increase a company’s online visibility. The web’s particularly characteristics – its permanance and its one-to-many publishing model – make it a veritable hot tub for viral ideas.
Footnote: If you’d like to look at the website analytics data for iCryptex.com, go to Google Analytics and log in using email@example.com, password mimeme.