Thursday, November 18, 2004

Meme Meme Me

Paul Little posted the following last Saturday on his Journal, Aurora Walking Vacation:

(like me)

Most onerous malapropism in the blogosphere: meme.

To which I commented:

I disagree. The term is appropriate. I just don't care much for some aspects of the phenomenon itself. - Karen

Then in email, Paul asked,

Do you really think the proliferation of all those teeny-bopper quizzes (which LOTR character are you? Which Pokeman are you? Which Goth stereotype are you? etc, etc, ad nauseum) qualify as memes? Do you think The Saturday Six, or John's Weekend Assignments qualify as memes? I don't.

I replied,

As I understand it, a meme is an idea that spread like a virus across the culture. The stupid quizzes, Saturday Six et al. certainly do have that viral quality. It's true that they don't usually contribute much by way of valuable ideas, but many other memes contribute wrong-headed ideas, so on balance I suppose it's no worse.

That said, I have taken a few of the quizzes here and there, if the subject matter was interesting, largely because I'm interested in the way personality quizzes of any sort, including the "real" ones used by psychologists and management theory adherents, never seem to peg me accurately. A twentysomething's quiz that calls me Gandalf, a ghost or the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is only marginally sillier than a DISC assessment, IMO.

This morning I looked up the
Wikipedia: Meme entry. The formal definition is more complicated than what I said above, but I'm not far off when it comes to the term's current usage. On his website,, author Richard Brodie defines it this way:

Memes can amount to brain clutter.Memes are contagious ideas, all competing for a share of our mind in a kind of Darwinian selection. As memes evolve, they  become better and better at distracting and diverting us from whatever we'd really like to be doing with our lives. They are a kind of Drug of the Mind. Confused? Blame it on memes.

Brodie concentrates on the spread of cults, urban legends, chain mail, endlessly forwarded jokes and so on. He strongly suggests that you take a critical look at forwarded email before passing it on.

Google up "meme" and you get both the Wikipedia and Brodie websites, and a weird one called that's full of short but fascinating scattershot entries. Farther down the list is The Daily Meme, which is dedicated to the meme in the sense typically used by bloggers.

Another classic example of a meme, one that's currently annoying both me and John, is the dropping of the article "the" before proper nouns that used to require them, especially ones referred to by initials. Suddenly it's not "the FDA" or "the FBI" or even "the Department of Education." It's "FDA released a statement saying...." John's slogan, which he's been saying for years, is "Fight the meme." As an editor, he's especially concerned about this when it comes to what he sees as degradations of the English language.

The same "mind virus" mechanism is at work in the spread of Quizilla quizzes, the Saturday Six and so on. The Quizilla ones proliferate because they're pretty and intriguing, and people are curious about what result they'll get. Weekend Assignments and other multi-blog writing exercises spread because 1. people want ideas for something to blog about, and 2. posting a link to the source of a writing exercise is an easy way to promote readership of your blog. Heck, I'm dying to get more people to read and comment on this one. At the same time, though, I actively avoid blogs that consist mostly of memes in the sense of quizzes and polls and jokes and writing exercises. It just seems like a waste of time, and time is a scarce commodity in my life. So I do the Weekend Assignments, and pretty much leave the rest alone.

Occasionally, I do get sucked into a quiz, though, and a couple of times I've posted the result on my LiveJournal. The most disturbing of these, which doesn't seem to be displayable on AOL-J today, claims I will be murdered at the age of 54:


How will you DIE? Name / Username You will die as a result of murderAt age 54 This cool quiz by Confused_Pete - Taken 191705 Times.

I don't think I'll be going back to that web site.


I Am Not a Personality Type


plittle said...

OK, I'll accept that the definition can cover all those blog quizzes, although I suspect your S.O. and I have similar ideas about the use of the language, and I object to the blogging community co-opting the word for their own use. How often have you run into a Live Journal that names one of those 'quizilla' things as "my favourite meme?" No, that's your favourite way of posting something in your journal without actually using any portion of your own brain. < /rant>

ryanagi said...

Funny...I won't do one of the assignments unless it makes me think. The mindless quizzes...I find some of them mildly entertaining (wildly inaccurate, but entertaining). I think I need some more "meme" examples. Isn't the term "S.O." a meme? I hate that term. Why did everyone glom on to it? ;-)