Friday, 9 January 2009

Lifecycle of a meme

A recent discussion on reddit prompted me to sketch out the stages of an internet meme's lifecycle.

Lest there be any confusion, I'm talking here about internet memes - LOLcats, Soviet Russia jokes and the like, not about memes in the more general sense of the word.

As far as I can see, all memes go through this lifecycle:

  1. Meme is born. Almost nobody understands it, and it's barely funny even when you do.
  2. Meme gets adopted by a specific social group. Meme now serves as a shibboleth indicating membership of the group, and encourages feelings of belonging and "insidership" whenever it's encountered. At this stage, the meme is usually either utterly baffling or hilarious, depending on whether or not you're an insider in that social group.
  3. Meme becomes mainstream - everyone is using it at every opportunity, and - its use as a shibboleth negated - it gradually gets stale from overuse. Meme is hilarious to newcomers, but increasingly sterile and boring to older users.
  4. Meme effectively dies - people using it are generally downmodded or castigated for trying for "easy" posts. Importantly, it can still be funny even at this stage if it's used particularly well... however, 99% of the uses at this point are people trying to cash in on easy karma - the kind of people who tell the same jokes for years without realising that the 17th time you hear it, it's no longer funny.
  5. Meme is effectively dead, but may experience rare and infrequent resurrection in particularly deserving cases. Generally these uses get applauded, because nobody wants to risk approbation for posting stale memes unless they're really sure this is a perfect opportunity for it - one that's literally too good to miss.

Importantly, by stage 5 the meme starts once again to be funny, because it's once again serving as a shibboleth... though this time instead of showing how advanced and up-to-date the poster is, it instead serves to indicate his membership in the "old guard" of whatever social group it's posted to - "I've been around here so long I remember when this was funny", it quietly indicates to other old-timers and well-educated newbies alike.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Engines of reason

Initially we as acted as individuals - what we understood of reality was what we experienced and determined for ourselves. There was no understanding or appreciation of the world outside our direct experience.

Later we developed language, and what we understood of reality was formed from our own perceptions and conclusions, influenced by the perceptions and conclusions of our family and social group (family, clan, village, etc).

Next we developed the printing press, and mass-media. These allowed centralised governments and organisations to accumulate and weigh information and experiences and broadcast them to the populace. We still held our own council on personal or local matters, but since we rarely (if ever) knew anyone who had experienced such events outside our local region, we largely received all our knowledge and understanding of the outside world from centralised authority - governments, news media organisations, etc.

Finally, with the advent of the web we're enabling anyone to publish their personal experiences, in a way that anyone else in the world can then receive. No longer do we simply not have access to information, nor do we receive distilled, refined, potentially biased information from one or a few sources. Now we're capable in theory of hearing every point of view from every participant in an event, untainted by anything but their personal, arbitrary biases.

We are still receiving information on a global scale, but for the first time it's potentially all primary evidence, untainted and unfiltered by a single agenda or point of view.

The trouble with this is that brains, personalities, cultures and institutions long-accustomed to received wisdom now have to compare, contrast, weigh and discern the trustworthiness of multiple conflicting points of view for themselves. For the first time since our pre-linguistic ancestors you - and only you - are primarily responsible for determining truth from falsehood, and for the first time in history you have to do so on a global scale, involving events of which you have no direct experience.

To be clear: this is hard. Many people instinctively reject the terrifying uncertainty and extra effort, instead abdicating their personal responsibility and fleeing to any source of comforting certainty they can find. This explains why even in these supposedly scientific and rational times people still subscribe to superstitions or religions, or simplistic, fundamentalist philosophies, or blindly consume and believe opinionated but provably-biased sources like political leaders, charismatic thinkers or biased news organisations.

So it's a double-edged sword - for the first time in history we have access to primary evidence about events in the world, rather than receiving conclusions from a central source along with only what secondary or tertiary evidence supports them. However, in doing so the one thing we've noticed is that the channels we've relied-upon up till now are biased, agenda-laden and incomplete.

Obviously in an ideal world everyone could be relied-upon to train their bullshit-filters and research and determine the truth for themselves. However, given the newness of the current situation we can't rely upon this any time soon. Likewise, given both the sheer volume of information and humanity's propensity for laziness and satisficing, we'll likely never be able to rely on the majority of people doing this for every single issue they hold an opinion on.

So what's a species to do? We've turned on the firehose of knowledge, and it's shown that the traditional channels of received wisdom are unreliable, but many people find it impractically hard to drink from it.

There are three choices here:

  • We could allow the majority of people to reject their responsibilities and abdicate their reasoning processes to others of unknown reliability... though this is the kind of thing that leads to fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism and cultural and scientific stagnation.
  • Alternatively, we could encourage people to distrust authority and try to decide for themselves... though even if we win, if the effort of self-determination is too great we risk merely leaving people floundering in a morass of equally-likely-looking alternatives (I believe this is a primary cause of baseless, unproven but trendy philosophies like excessive cultural relativism - if you're lost in a sea of indistinguishable alternatives, it's flattering and tempting to believe there is no difference in their correctness).
  • Lastly, we can make an effort to formalise and simplify the process of determining reliability and truth - striving to create democratic, transparent mechanisms where objective truth is determined and rewarded, and falsehood or erroneous information is discarded... lowering the bar to individual decision-making, but avoiding unilateral assumption of authority by a single (or small group of) agendas.

Stupid as it may seem, I believe this is the ultimate destination towards which sites like reddit or Wikipedia are slowly converging - people post evidence, assertions or facts, those facts are discussed, weighed and put in context, and (so the theory goes) accuracy and factual truth is ascertained by exposing the process to a large enough consensus.

It doesn't always work - many of these early attempts suffer from a poor mechanism, or attract a community who vote based on their prejudices rather than rational argument, or end up balkanised in one or more isolated areas of parochial groupthink.

However, the first heavier-than-air aircraft didn't work too well either, and here we are a few decades later flying around the planet faster than the sun. As a species we're still only a few years into what may be a decades- or centuries-long process - one which could change the very foundations of (and mechanism by which we determine) what we understand as factual reality.

People love to rag on social news sites, discussion forums and sites like Wikipedia for what amounts to failing to have already achieved perfection. I prefer to salute them for what they are - hesitant, often blind, stumbling baby-steps towards solving a problem many people don't yet even realise exists.