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Not All Memes Are Viral

The more I think about the idea that not all memes are viral, the more I like it, so I thought I'd give it a page of its own.

Here's how I originally stated it, in The Good.

On the surface, stupid and useless ideas may flourish, but underneath the good ideas are working quietly away, keeping everything running. It is just the same as with real genetics—we are aware of the cold viruses that come and go, and not so much aware of the mitochondria that power the cells.

There's a variant in Reaction Against Button-Pushing, but it amounts to the same thing.

For what it's worth, I thought of some reasons it might be tempting to think that all memes are viral.

The simple reason is that many of the memes one encounters do happen to be viral. I think this is a case of selection bias, however, something like doing a telephone survey to find out how many people own telephones. Viral memes are the simplest kind, so naturally they are the easiest to discover and the best to use as examples in any first explanation of the concept of memes.

Another reason is that memes are presented as analogous to genes, and we regular folks don't have a whole lot of mental models to choose from when it comes to gene propagation. On the one hand, there's sexual reproduction: two big parallel sets of genes are shuffled and recombined, all in one tidy step; on the other, there's viral reproduction: a host is tricked into reproducing zillions of copies of a single small gene.

Even for genes, though, there are lots of other ways to propagate. I'm no expert, but here are a couple I've heard of. First, some single-celled organisms do this thing called conjugation, where they basically hook up and swap genes back and forth. Second, under the right conditions some kinds of cells can absorb and incorporate genes in the form of free-floating DNA.

In any case, although memes and genes are analogous, it's not true that every form of meme propagation has to have a genetic analogue.


  See Also

  Antiviral Memes
  meme, memetic
  On Graffiti
  Picking Up Trash
  What Would Memetics Look Like?

@ January (2001)