There has been some discussion about why social memes seem to spread so quickly through society and also why it is that they always seem to change just enough to remain interesting, while still keeping their essential features.
I’ve got a few theories about that, but the big one is this: spreading a meme correctly gives some sort of psychological payoff to the person who spreads it.
So spreading exciting things feels good, even when the things you are spreading are downright horrible.
But first I need to explain what a meme actually is. At its most basic level a meme is an idea, that has the ability to spread itself from person to person. This can be something as practical as how to rewire a plug, or something as abstract as the plot of Romeo and Juliet.
I am of course only talking about cultural memes. Internet memes like Longcat, ‘all-yourbase’ and so on are definitely also memes, but quite different in their content and transmission.
There are lots of things about memes that are really interesting. Firstly, they affect our behaviour. How many of you have heard some horrific crime story and changed the way you lock up your house, or your car, because of it?
The idea that blondes are stupid is another meme, and even though it has no basis in reality it still affects the way people talk about blondes, or even how they act towards them.
Urban legends are particularly effective memes because no matter how unlikely they are there are always people who believe them
All religions (whether they are “right” or “wrong”) are memes; they are ideas about the world that spread from person, and impact on their lives and culture in some way. The idea that Saddam Hussein had something to do with September 11 is a meme. All of the other conspiracy theories about 9/11 are memes to, as are the more accurate scientific explanations.
So memes affect our behaviour, our culture, our minds, and many other aspects of our lives. What is also interesting about them is that they spread, and when they spread they tend to change just enough to stay relevant to their new environment, while also remaining close enough to the original meme so that they can be recognised as related to each other.
So how is it that they can change, while still staying essentially the same?
Richard Dawkins has proposed one theory, which is that the person learning the meme doesn’t remember it in perfect detail, because that would be pointless, and a waste of energy. Instead, they remember the most important features and the rest is left to chance.
My theory is similar to that, but also brings in an important psychological component: enjoyment.
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