August 16, 2013

Fun and (research) Profit with Internet Memes

Here are several more posts from my micro-blog and conceptual proving ground, Tumbld Thoughts. This series is all about internet memes. The first feature (The white flag of my reflections on what drives complex processes like history and evolution, using a popular internet comic as inspiration. The second feature (What comes next, a pattern recognition test......) is a matching game I made from a meme involving the failed restoration of a religious fresco and various cultural references. The final feature of this post (The role of variation in memetic evolution) highlights a new study on the evolution of and variation inherent in internet memes. In the name of scientific and creative realism, all profanity is left in its original context.

I. The white flag of reductionism........

Figure 1. The "most important driver is random shit" meme.

Inspired by the "most important driver is random shit" meme (Figure 1) [1], I have modified the cartoon to more accurately reflect the rhetorical message of the original [2]. While randomness can play a role in processes such as history, evolution, and other complex systems [3], there are at least two alternate hypotheses:

A) The image in Figure 2 features the first of these (subtle factors), which suggests that many hidden and unknown variables are responsible.

Figure 2. Cartoon for the subtle factors hypothesis.

B) The image in Figure 3 features the second (multivariate causality), which partitions the "random shit" category into many candidate causal factors, each contributing different amounts to the entire picture [4].

Figure 3. Cartoon for the multivariate causality hypothesis.

II. What comes next, a pattern recognition test......

Figure 4. Pick one image from the bottom row that completes the sequence in the top row.

Your task is to pick the next logical image in a sequence of images (see Figure 4). Choose among the options (A, B, and C) below. Creative extrapolation is required.

This exercise is brought to us by Cecilia Gimenez, the Sock MonkeyMuno from the TV show Yo Gabba Gabba, and Ted Kacynski. Thanks for playing!

III. The role of variation in memetic evolution

Here is an interesting new arXiv paper [5] on internet memes. In the study, Michele Coscia [6] statistically analyzes and builds a predictive model (Figure 5) that characterizes the interactions between and variability among memes (Figure 6). This is treated independently of results from a more typical approach, which is to observe the propagation of memes in a social network. 

Figure 5. A figure from the paper showing a hierarchical statistical analysis of a meme population.

The research relies upon treating memes as analogous to genes (biological units of inheritance) [7], and raises some interesting points. For example, memes appear to behave collectively and over time in ways similar to genes, including exhibiting "selfish gene"-like behavior [8], functional collaboration, and can even become functionally integrated into "organisms" [9].

Figure 6. A demonstration of natural variation via cultural evolutionary processes in the "Annoyed Picard" meme.

Update (9/27): Here is a nice article in the latest issue of, critically evaluating the meme concept [10].


[1] Traced back to: Weiner, Z.   What drives history. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic, April 15 (2013). Can also be found on a number of other blogs and with slight variations in the wording.

[2] this is basically an argument against essentialism, and seems to be relatable across a number of reposts.

[3] Even the notion of "random shit" can be a bit more experimentally-tractable. In the case of gene expression, randomness can be partitioned into intrinsic and extrinsic variation. For more information, please see: Elowitz, M.B., Levine, A.J., Siggia, E.D., and Swain, P.S.   Stochastic gene expression in a single cell. Science, 297(5584), 1183–1186 (2002).

[4] For an example of the subtle factors hypothesis using the fall of the Roman Empire, please see: Arbesman, S.   210 Reasons for the Fall of the Roman Empire. Social Dimension blog, June 26 (2013).  

[5] Coscia, M.   Competition and Success in the Meme Pool: a Case Study on arXiv: 1304.1712 [physics.soc-ph]

[6] Coscia, M.   Memes and Cultural Organisms. Follow the Crowd blog, June 25 (2013).

[7] this is often problematic, as the meme-as-gene metaphor may break down given complexity and the transfer to cultural system dynamics. For more on the meme-as-gene metaphor, please see: Blackmore, S. The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK (2000).

For more on the the notion of dual (meme-gene) inheritance, please see: Richerson, P.J. and Boyd, R.   Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. University of Chicago Press, Chicago (2005).

[8] For more on the selfish gene hypothesis, please see: Dawkins, R.   The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK (1976).

[9] To a biologist, these terms will seem misused. The terminology is analogical, but the basic structure of units of inheritance and selection are closer to what is seen in biology.

[10] Rabinowitz, A.   The Meme as Meme., Issue 5 (2013). For more on the status of memetics as a science (a bit dated now, but still intellectually relevant), please see: Aunger, R.   Darwinizing culture: the status of memetics as a science. Oxford University Press (2000).

1 comment:

  1. You are too kind to Dawkins. Read my Proposition 108, page 437 in:
    Gordon, R. (1999). The Hierarchical Genome and Differentiation Waves: Novel Unification of Development, Genetics and Evolution. Singapore & London, World Scientific & Imperial College Press.
    where I make minced meat of the selfish gene, precisely because of Dawkins' adding its "collective" behavior, which is now observed in memes too. His reasoning goes in a full circle.
    Yours, -Richard Gordon