Susan Blakemore wrote ‘The Meme Machine’.
She says a meme isn’t simply something that occurs on the Internet, like LOL-cats or hashtags.
In Wikipedia it’s defined as follows:
“A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through, writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena.”
Put simply, a meme is something that catches on.
Susan Blackmore gives an example of a meme in everyday life.
She shows a photo of a toilet in a backpacker’s hostel in Malaysia.
The toilet is very basic of course, tatty, well worn, but clean.
We don’t notice anything unusual until she points out the toilet roll.
The corners of the first sheet have been folded over.
She shows various photos of the same thing, the first sheet of toilet paper with the corners folded.
In a hostel in Shanghai, in a toilet on a Japanese train, in an outdoor toilet in Thailand,
Why is it happening everywhere, what does it signify?
Well to most of us it signifies that we will be the first person to use that toilet since it was cleaned.
But when did that become a sign?
Personally, I first noticed it several years ago.
At home, we had a cockney cleaning lady called Carole.
Her sons paid for her to have a holiday in a nice New York hotel.
Carole noticed that every day after the cleaning staff had finished, they folded the corners on the first sheet on the toilet roll.
Carole had never seen that before.
But she liked it and remembered it.
She thought it looked professional even though it cost nothing.
When she came back, she began doing it to our toilet rolls.
It was Cariole’s way of signifying that she’d done her job: that room was now clean and ready to use.
I didn’t know it had caught on until I saw Susan Blackmore’s talk.
But that’s exactly how a meme works.
No one tells us what it means, but we see it and we get it.
We like it so we use it.
Then, other people do the same and it gets into the language.
Without ever being explained, or discussed, or taught.
Another meme would be the heart symbol.
We see it everywhere, especially on Valentine’s Day cards.
But in medieval times it was a heraldic device used on shields and banners.
At some point it became the universal symbol for love.
Then it was carved into trees.
And now, it even substitutes for the word itself: “I (heart) NY”.
The extended middle finger would be another meme.
It’s believed to be an ancient Italian gesture, indicating homosexuality.
Immigrants took it to New York with them.
It was adopted as a universal insult and spread across America.
And spread, via American films, across the world.
That’s what a meme is, a symbol that catches on and communicates.
That’s how semiotics works, that’s how language works.
That’s how all communication works.
If we want our work to catch on, we need to study memes.
Not assume it’s merely an Internet phenomenon.
Interesting storytelling this. Just goes to show that good writing and good storytelling is medium agnostic.
— Seth Godin, again, re-iterating why companies and brands need to connect with people on an emotional level.
— Seth Godin, INC. Interview
— Neil Gaiman, in answer to this question on his Tumblr
Reading the Pew research Center’s Digital life in 2025 report I was struck by how deeply the internet has embedded itself into our lives, and how deeply we think about it.
The report itself is a collection of musings by leading thinkers on how web/internet culture is shaping our lives in the present and will do so in 2025. It features many compelling points of view, both Utopian and dystopian. One that I found incredibly compelling:
"We’ll have a picture of how someone has spent their time, the depth of their commitment to their hobbies, causes, friends, and family. This will change how we think about people, how we establish trust, how we negotiate change, failure, and success.”
In other words, how we see ourselves and the people around us.
Coincidentally, I have also been reading John Naughton’s economical take on what we really need to know about the internet. Put together, both pieces present interesting and measured views on the web and it’s impact; and while its easy to take a side (Utopian or otherwise), what’s important is to take the long view.
Believe it or not, It is still early days yet for the world wide web.
We are all storytellers
Did you see “We’re All Storytellers?” It’s a wonderful piece from Google that aired during the Academy Awards after the Best Screenplay Oscars were announced. Linking a storytelling message to the Best Screenplay Oscars was an example of something incredibly important: context.
Nice foreword from BBH’s ‘The ABC of contemporary creatives,’ that adds some perspective to creativity in the new media age.
Its easier as well as much harder. The novelty of the media helps, but also makes things harder in the long run as choices & expectations multiply.
Curiosity and versatility are no longer just a virtue, but essentials. To understand how creativity works, you need to be creating and curating. You need to touch, feel and hack media, not just discuss it or observe.
And that means experimenting, being brave. And hoping that things turn out fine :)