remix culture: viral media, mutating media?
Thursday’s class is the last in the series of guided introductions to theories that are relevant to remix culture, and deals with how user-generated media spreads. We’re reading Richard Dawkin’s chapter on memes from The Selfish Gene (1976), which introduces the idea of the meme, and Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf and Joshua Green’s white paper on Spreadable Media (2009), which argues that genetic and biological terms like meme or viral are not useful in understanding how these kinds of creation spread.
Today, we’ll pick some “memes” (we’ll figure out in class which ones) and analyse them:
- Why do you think people forward/follow this meme?
- Describe its longevity, fecundity and copying-fidelity (after Dawkins) – do these affect its success?
- Can you find other reasons for success? Discuss in terms of Jenkins’ et.al. list of qualities typical to successful spreadable media in part seven (see the bottom of this post for a brief list)
- Write a blog post about your analysis.
One of the interesting things about Dawkins’ concept of the meme is that in building upon evolutionary genetics, he speculates that the characteristics that allow a gene to spread successfully may be more universal (“The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. There may be others.” p 192), and that perhaps the same principles apply to cultural memes, such as a popular song or the idea that a god exists. These three characteristics, Dawkins presumes, will be the same as those that characterise successful genes:
- longevity: like molecules, unless memes last for a certain minimum time before dissolving or splitting up, they won’t be copied. For instance, and this is my example so I hope Dawkins would agree, for a tune to be successful it needs to be memorable enough that a person will hum it to themselves and want to hear it again, or maybe sing it to someone else. It doesn’t need to last forever, by any means, just long enough for new copies to be made – in someone else’s mind, or written down, or recorded, or re-played. (see p 17 for the molecular equivalent)
- fecundity: How many copies does it generate? How fertile is it? For long term survival it needs to make many copies (the tune should be whistled by many people) but it also needs to continue to be copied for a long time.
- copying-fidelity: Dawkins admits that his analogy may be shaky here, as ideas tend to change a little each time they’re repeated, in contrast to genes, which mutate, but certainly not with every copy. He suggests that maybe if seen at a small enough scale, memes are copied precisely. So for instance religion includes the meme of hell, that of there being a god, and so on.
It’s important to Dawkins that the natural selection of memes isn’t about what’s best for human genes, that is what’s good for us biologically. No, “a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has simply because it is advantageous to itself” (p 200). For instance, the meme for celibacy in Catholic priests obviously isn’t good in terms of those priests spreading their genes – but it’s good for the spread of the meme of celibacy (i.e. it’s advantageous for itself) because celibacy means the priest doesn’t waste time on family, he spends it (among other things) convincing other young men to become celibate like himself. (p198) It’s also important to him (see his final two paragraphs) that also our genes and memes are selfish, we have the power of conscious foresight and don’t have to slavishly do whatever’s best for our genes and memes.
Jenkins, Li, Krauskopf and Green, on the other hand, argue that biological metaphors are not useful in understanding how media spread. Of course, Dawkins wasn’t really writing about internet “memes” like the Kanye West images or lolcats, he was writing more generally.
They don’t like the term “meme” or “viral” because (in Jenkin et. al.’s view) they emphasise replication and involuntary spread. Jenkins et.al. would rather emphasise the transformation of ideas as they are spread by communication between humans, and in particular they want to hold on to the idea of the people who spread a message or meme or “media content” being active and not dumb masses that marketers can do whatever they want to. They seem to like “viral” even less than “meme”, because it “reduces consumers to the involuntary “hosts” of media viruses”. They write: “Arguably, those ideas which survive are those which can be most easily appropriated and reworked by a range of different communities.”
I like their desire to show that “consumers” actually think and are active in the process – but I definitely think they simplify Dawkins – it’s telling that hardly any of the citations are to his own writing. And I definitely don’t think Dawkins would agree with all the things they attribute to him – that memes “explain everything from politics to fashion”, for instance. I also think that they conflate “viral” and “meme”, which doesn’t really treat the original idea of memes fairly.
Jenkins et al suggest a number of alternative names for us (i.e. people who use and pass on memes/media) – if viral media sets us as hosts or carriers of alien ideas, they prefer terms like “consumer” or “multiplier”. I don’t think these are much better, to be honest.
They differentiate between stickiness and spreadability, talk about the gift economy, what makes content worth spreading (comparing it to work on rumours, among other things) – this is in a general sense, though – we share things to build relationships and so forth.
- provides different levels of engagement (i.e. you don’t have to get all the in-jokes to like it)
- or is parody and requires cultural knowledge (so makes you feel good about your knowledge and getting the joke)
- makes you want to find more info, so you engage your network to do so – search for origins, what it really means, who made it, etc
- “gaps”, interactivity, i.e. you have to do something for it to work
- nostalgia and community
In class we came up with a few additional characteristics that might make us want to spread media:
- cute cats/babies (cuteness appears related to humour but is slightly different?)
- threats (bad things will happen to you if you don’t forward this chain letter to ten of your friends)
- help is needed (an infamous German example Franziska told us about was Heiko Spatz, who asks us to forward the email to as many people as possible to find a bone marrow donor – but the real Heiko Spatz knows nothing about it…)