« 85 - 13 | Main | Book Report: The Computer Connection »

Meme, ranty, rant

Ruthling’s Rant-O-Matic is propagating a Ranty meme, and although it might well go without saying, I pass it along to my Gentle Readers, suitably modified for the outside-LJ ’sphere.

  • Comment or email with any subject about which you would like to see me rant about.
  • Watch my journal Tohu Bohu for your rant.
  • Post this in your own journal if you have one, so that you may rant for others. Or, you know, don’t. This step is optional.
  • In other words, it is standing policy of this Tohu Bohu to accept requests. The comments in this thread is a good place to put them. Similar to Dr. Science, Your Humble Blogger has an auxiliary brain in his vocal cords that allows him to begin answering a question before the brain kicks in. This doesn’t help so much with typing, sadly.

    As lagniappe, here’s a quick mini-rant about the word meme. The word meme doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean either a set of instructions passed from person to person or a time-wasting internet quiz. The whole idea of the meme is that, like a gene, it becomes a permanent part of the individual. Kashrut is a meme. The reason I know (some of) the rules of Kashrut is because they were handed down from generation to generation; just as I am genetically related to (some) other Jews, I am memetically related to them. Democracy is a meme (or, rather a meme complex, but I think the use of meme as Schenectady for meme complex makes a good deal of sense to me). English is a meme. The ranty meme is not a meme, unless it becomes a tradition passed down to the next generation.

    On the other hand, there is clearly a need for a term for the thing for which meme has been appropriated. The rapid spread of quizzes, blog topics or little multicolored horizontal bars not only is sufficiently common to require a word (and some study), but it in itself, in its post-modern referential post-Ecovian way) requires a name to exist. I can’t correctly engage in the ranty activity without saying where I saw it and how I modified it. And, of course, as an activity it is mimetic, and also has some aspects of an actual meme. And, finally, the word actually used to describe the activity is meme, so it wouldn’t do to ignore that fact.

    So I use it. But every time I use it—every time—it makes me cranky. Thank you,


    A quibble, a quibble!

    Internet-timewaster-quizzes are most certainly memes, in that they are concepts or techniques that people copy from each other. Each one tends to go extinct pretty quickly, but that just makes it a less successful meme than, say, men shaving their faces or habeas corpus.

    My problem with calling them memes is that they tend to be the only thing that people call memes, leading to a loss of the actual meaning of the word by over-specification.

    My impression was that memes, to be memes, had to be transmitted generationally rather than, um, horizontally. That is, memes are by definition a complement to genes. On the other hand, you are right to identify meaning loss through over-specification as the issue. If all that happened was that the word meme gained a new meaning, making it a homonym or homograph or one of those homos, it would really be a pedant's crank to complain. But the tremendously useful concept of a meme is made much more difficult to explain by the existence of "meme"s such as internet-timewaster-quizzes.

    Of course, I could well be wrong. Having totally bogus info is a traditional part of rantiness, right?


    My concept was just the opposite: that memes were ideas or concepts which propogate themselves sort of like viral infection through a population. Things like catchy advertising jingles or catchphrases from TV shows ("Don't have a cow, man"). I'd never heard of a generationally-passed-down definition before your post, and would never have thought of kashrut as a meme.

    I've even heard of a parlor game about memes, where everyone secretly comes up with a catchphrase or the like, and then the (suitably large) group of players all mill about the room having small one-on-one conversations with others which consist of telling the other person your meme and then, when you've heard theirs, secretly deciding which is catchier, and using whichever one that is when you bump into the next player. Eventually, one meme should prove dominant and defeat all the others; if you want to declare anyone the winner, it's whoever started with that meme, though of course the whole point is to have silly fun while observing how infection vectors work.

    The word "meme" was originally coined by Richard Dawkins, as the basic unit of the transmission of culture. If we define culture to mean those parts of our thought and behavior that come from our group rather than ourselves, than seeing whether a meme carries from one generation to the next is a way of telling whether it has become part of the "culture".

    I'd argue that 1) it's a meme even if it doesn't carry over generationally -- it's just an unsuccessful meme, 2) it must transmit horizontally before it transmits vertically to be successful -- a family tradition (say, everyone going to the same movie on Christmas Eve) isn't part of the culture unless people outside the family do it, and 3) there is such a thing as internet "culture" which has much shorter generations than a national or ethnic culture, and memes might serve to transmit it.

    V: your binding of 'meme' to generational transmission is an interesting (to me, at least) inversion of a previous conversation I had about memes with a friend of mine. I used religion as the standard example of a meme complex, noting that no religion can persist unless it compels its followers to spread it to others. He objected that Judaism does not evangelize -- until he caught on that children count as "others".

    anthropology is the study of culture, said the professor

    culture is
    passed on

    passed down

    i don't get what the interest is in memes, are we all trying to learn to brainwash each other?

    Well, and I'm always willing to admit when I get something wrong, so here goes: New York. Not New Jersey. I knew that, I know that, and somehow, despite actually looking up the spelling I managed to type it wrong. I apologize to any New Yorkers who feel offended, and just to be on the safe side, any Jersey girls who feel offended as well.
    On the meme thing, though, I am Right. I may only be Right in My Own Universe, but there I am, once again, gloriously Right.

    Comments are closed for this entry. Usually if I close comments for an entry it's because that entry gets a disproportionate amount of spam. If you want to contact me about this entry, feel free to send me email.