October 4, 2006
Scientist Richard Dawkins introduced memes in his seminal book “The Selfish Gene” almost 40 years ago. A meme is made of information, actually it is very much information; only that a meme is information that sticks, like a hit song, a blockbuster movie or the English language. These are all examples of memes. So you get the idea.
For obvious reasons, marketers are all thrilled about the possibilities of generating new memes: how cool for sales it is to make a brand a meme. However the memetic science, as it is now called, goes beyond marketing frontiers. It has been target of research in computer science, cognitive psychology, anthropology, sociology and so on. The internet age is accelerating even more research on memetics because as memes translate neatly into digital patterns, they can spread literally at light-speed via the world wide web. Whenever a plane crashes in Brazil (like the unlucky one last Friday) or some newspaper in Brussels sues Google, every news service can talk about it and every blogger can write about it almost instantaneously. News in German or in Portuguese get translated into English and the other way around, by thousands of human beings that are listening or reading, so to speak.
Unfortunately in all societies around the globe there is misunderstanding, lies and crime. So in the world of memetics, there are also trespassing memes, which however mere abstractions, can cause a lot of damage. Take the case of recent elections in Brazil. Can a person become a meme? Surely if this person gets so much exposition that he or she becomes almost an icon of something pleasant for the masses. That is precisely the reason why so many Brazilian TV-stars run every 4 years for the congress and many end up winning (also in the US there are good examples of that). TV-stars own a lot of air time and are viewed by hundreds of thousands of voters. Thus some of them do become a meme, just an idea of a person that reminds voters how nice, funny or trustable they are. Are they?
These people turn certainly into memes, but in most cases, trespassing memes. Their appearances on television mislead voters to believe that they are skilled for the job they are applying for. It is like a Hollywood star that suddenly decides to step into a multi-billion company as CEO or member of the board. But of course multi-billion companies know better. It is not just the case in democratic societies. Mass media play a big role in everyday life decisions for most people and it is often difficult to tell, which choices are individual, if such things ever existed.
Truth is, in the case of elections, when trespassing memes find their way up to the congress they certainly cause a lot of damage.