Sunday, July 29, 2012

Are we making meme or is meme making us?

There are multiple side to each story.  One story from subject actor's perspective, another from object's perspective, and yet another from third party's perspective.  Each perspective provides one view into the truth.  It's useful to understand how these perspectives interact to clearly grasp what is happening.  It is also helpful to see the totality of what is going to happen and where the focus should be.

First, actor's perspective.

I started to see Queen Elizabeth's photo from London Olympics ceremony with witty subtitle.

Less than a few hours later, I started to see many variation of these on my social network feeds:

You don't need to be plugged into social media meme machine to see the full effects of this meme.  Try this link and see it for yourself.  This is the result that I ran just now:

Some of us saw humor in these photos, started editing and uploaded the new copy.  A guy like me is catching on to it as social meme, and using it as an example.  We are all part of the system.  We are all creating and perpetuating meme by one way or another.  We are the actors.  Meme is the object that gets passed on.

Second, object's perspective, i.e. meme's perspective.

Meme does not have any consciousness.  Although some conspiracy theorist would have you believe otherwise, there is no one creator who oversees meme's creation and evolution.  It got started with someone uploading a photo with 'insert your text here' type comment.  If it gets picked up by someone who thought it was funny, it gets passed on.  If it gets picked up by someone with a bit of too much free-time and Photoshop skill, it mutates and new photo with caption gets uploaded.

Meme gets picked up based on its virality.  More viral it is, more likely it will reach larger audience and higher chance it will get passed on to more people faster.  During contagion phase, it gets mutated to become something else.

From meme's perspective, humans are hosts.  Meme is virus.  It has no life on its own, yet gets passed on to the next host and can make copies of itself, at times with slight mutation.  Human is not in control.  Meme is.

Now, third person's perspective looking at all these.

There are multiple feedback loops going on.  Each iteration is a chance to create something new.  On each iteration it involves human and meme.  To initiate the loop, meme gets created by a person.  But once created, it is no longer under the creator's control.  In order to infect someone to pass it on to others, it needs to be funny enough, interesting enough.  And that's up to meme and host population.  Once it passes those if-statements, the cycle begins.  It's no longer clear what's driving what.  Meme becomes living and breathing being that changes itself to morph according to hosts' imagination.

What lessons can we draw from these observations?

If you are a marketer and spread something fast, make it easy to mutate and voice people's ideas.  Even if you don't allow for it, people will do as long as your campaign is successful.  Here's Exhibit B from Dos Equis' Most Interesting Man In The World meme:

If you are a product manager and want to understand the trend, understand the entire picture by enumerating all actors and objects.  Express your observations in each actor and object's perspective.  For example, by looking at meme as its own living organism you can see all kinds of interesting questions that people might want to ask.

Where is the meme started?  Who started the meme?  How fast did meme spread?  How long did the buzz last?  What are people saying through all mutated copies?

I want to leave you with Susan Blackmore's TED talk on Meme (and Teme).  She goes in to whole another level of interplay between meme and us humans.  That's a topic for another day.

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