A Memetic Lexicon

Version 3.2
Glenn Grant, Memeticist

What if ideas were viruses?

Consider the T-phage virus. A T-phage cannot replicate itself; it reproduces by hijacking the DNA of a bacterium, forcing its host to make millions of copies of the phage. Similarly, an idea can parasitically infect your mind and alter your behavior, causing you to want to tell your friends about the idea, thus exposing them to the idea-virus. Any idea which does this is called a "meme" (pronounced `meem').

Unlike a virus, which is encoded in DNA molecules, a meme is nothing more than a pattern of information, one that happens to have evolved a form which induces people to repeat that pattern. Typical memes include individual slogans, ideas, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions. It may sound a bit sinister, this idea that people are hosts for mind-altering strings of symbols, but in fact this is what human culture is all about.

As a species, we have co-evolved with our memes. Imagine a group of early Homo Sapiens in the Late Pleistocene epoch. They've recently arrived with the latest high-tech hand axes and are trying to show their Homo Erectus neighbours how to make them. Those who can't get their heads around the new meme will be at a disadvantage and will be out-evolved by their smarter cousins.

Meanwhile, the memes themselves are evolving, just as in the game of "Telephone" (where a message is whispered from person to person, being slightly mis-replicated each time). Selection favors the memes which are easiest to understand, to remember, and to communicate to others. Garbled versions of a useful meme would presumably be selected out.

So, in theory at least, the ability to understand and communicate complex memes is a survival trait, and natural selection should favor those who aren't too conservative to understand new memes. Or does it? In practice, some people are going to be all too ready to commit any new meme that comes along, even if it should turn out to be deadly nonsense, like: "Jump off a cliff and the gods will make you fly."

Such memes do evolve, generated by crazy people, or through mis-replication. Notice, though, that this meme might have a lot of appeal. The idea of magical flight is so tantalizing -- maybe, if I truly believed, I just might leap off the cliff and...

This is a vital point: people try to infect each other with those memes which they find most appealing, regardless of the memes' objective value or truth. Further, the carrier of the cliff-jumping meme might never actually take the plunge; they may spend the rest of their long lives infecting other people with the meme, inducing millions of gullible fools to leap to their deaths. Historically, this sort of thing is happening all the time.

Whether memes can be considered true "life forms" or not is a topic of some debate, but this is irrelevant: they behave in a way similar to life forms, allowing us to combine the analytical techniques of epidemiology, evolutionary science, immunology, linguistics, and semiotics, into an effective system known as "memetics." Rather than debate the inherent "truth" or lack of "truth" of an idea, memetics is largely concerned with how that idea gets itself replicated.

Memetics is vital to the understanding of cults, ideologies, and marketing campaigns of all kinds, and it can help to provide immunity from dangerous information-contagions. You should be aware, for instance, that you just been exposed to the Meta-meme, the meme about memes...

The lexicon which follows is intended to provide a language for the analysis of memes, meme-complexes, and the social movements they spawn. The name of the person who first coined and defined each word appears in parentheses, although some definitions have been paraphrased and altered.

Sources:

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.
Keith Henson, "Memetics", Whole Earth Review #57: 50-55.
Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas.
Howard Rheingold, "Untranslatable Words", Whole Earth Review #57: 3-8.

For a fictional treatment of these ideas, see my short story, "Memetic Drift," in Interzone #34 (March/April 1990).


Auto-toxic
Dangerous to itself. Highly auto-toxic memes are usually self-limiting because they promote the destruction of their hosts (such as the Jim Jones meme; any military indoctrination meme-complex; any "martyrdom" meme). (GMG) (See exo-toxic.)

bait
The part of a meme-complex that promises to benefit the host (usually in return for replicating the complex). The bait usually justifies, but does not explicitly urge, the replication of a meme-complex. (Donald Going, quoted by Hofstadter.) Also called the reward co-meme. (In many religions, "Salvation" is the bait, or promised reward; "Spread the Word" is the hook. Other common bait co-memes are "Eternal Bliss", "Security", "Prosperity", "Freedom".) (See hook; threat; infection strategy.)

belief-space
Since a person can only be infected with and transmit a finite number of memes, there is a limit to their belief space (Henson). Memes evolve in competition for niches in the belief-space of individuals and societies.

censorship
Any attempt to hinder the spread of a meme by eliminating its vectors. Hence, censorship is analogous to attempts to halt diseases by spraying insecticides. Censorship can never fully kill off an offensive meme, and may actually help to promote the meme's most virulent strain, while killing off milder forms.

co-meme
A meme which has symbiotically co-evolved with other memes, to form a mutually-assisting meme-complex. Also called a symmeme. (GMG)

cult
A sociotype of an auto-toxic meme-complex, composed of membots and/or memeoids. (GMG) Characteristics of cults include: self-isolation of the infected group (or at least new recruits); brainwashing by repetitive exposure (inducing dependent mental states); genetic functions discouraged (through celibacy, sterilization, devalued family) in favor of replication (proselytizing); and leader-worship ("personality cult"). (Henson.)

dormant
Currently without human hosts. The ancient Egyptian hieroglyph system and the Gnostic Gospels are examples of "dead" schemes which lay dormant for millennia in hidden or untranslatable texts, waiting to re-activate themselves by infecting modern archeologists. Some obsolete memes never become entirely dormant, such as Phlogiston theory, which simply mutated from a "belief" into a "quaint historical footnote."

earworm
"A tune or melody which infects a population rapidly." (Rheingold); a hit song. (Such as: "Don't Worry, Be Happy".) (f. German, ohrwurm=earworm.)

exo-toxic
Dangerous to others. Highly exo-toxic memes promote the destruction of persons other than their hosts, particularly those who are carriers of rival memes. (Such as: Nazism, the Inquisition, Pol Pot.) (See meme-allergy.) (GMG)

hook
The part of a meme-complex that urges replication. The hook is often most effective when it is not an explicit statement, but a logical consequence of the meme's content. (Hofstadter) (See bait, threat.)

host
A person who has been successfully infected by a meme. See infection, membot, memeoid.

ideosphere
The realm of memetic evolution, as the biosphere is the realm of biological evolution. The entire memetic ecology. (Hofstadter.) The health of an ideosphere can be measured by its memetic diversity.

immuno-depressant
Anything that tends to reduce a person's memetic immunity. Common immuno-depressants are: travel, disorientation, physical and emotional exhaustion, insecurity, emotional shock, loss of home or loved ones, future shock, culture shock, isolation stress, unfamiliar social situations, certain drugs, loneliness, alienation, paranoia, repeated exposure, respect for Authority, escapism, and hypnosis (suspension of critical judgment). Recruiters for cults often target airports and bus terminals because travelers are likely to be subject to a number of these immuno-depressants. (GMG) (See cult.)

immuno-meme
See vaccime. (GMG)

infection
  1. Successful encoding of a meme in the memory of a human being. A memetic infection can be either active or inactive. It is inactive if the host does not feel inclined to transmit the meme to other people. An active infection causes the host to want to infect others. Fanatically active hosts are often membots or memeoids. A person who is exposed to a meme but who does not remember it (consciously or otherwise) is not infected. (A host can indeed be unconsciously infected, and even transmit a meme without conscious awareness of the fact. Many societal norms are transmitted this way.) (GMG)

  2. Some memeticists have used `infection' as a synonym for `belief' (i.e. only believers are infected, non-believers are not). However, this usage ignores the fact that people often transmit memes they do not "believe in." Songs, jokes, and fantasies are memes which do not rely on "belief" as an infection strategy.

infection strategy
Any memetic strategy which encourages infection of a host. Jokes encourage infection by being humorous, tunes by evoking various emotions, slogans and catch-phrases by being terse and continuously repeated. Common infection strategies are "Villain vs. victim", "Fear of Death", and "Sense of Community". In a meme-complex, the bait co-meme is often central to the infection strategy. (See replication strategy; mimicry.) (GMG)

membot
A person whose entire life has become subordinated to the propagation of a meme, robotically and at any opportunity. (Such as many Jehovah's Witnesses, Krishnas, and Scientologists.) Due to internal competition, the most vocal and extreme membots tend to rise to top of their sociotype's hierarchy. A self-destructive membot is a memeoid. (GMG)

meme
(pron. `meem') A contagious information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the pattern. (Term coined by Dawkins, by analogy with "gene".) Individual slogans, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions are typical memes. An idea or information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else. All transmitted knowledge is memetic. (Wheelis, quoted in Hofstadter.) (See meme-complex).

meme-allergy
A form of intolerance; a condition which causes a person to react in an unusually extreme manner when exposed to a specific semiotic stimulus, or `meme-allergen.' Exo-toxic meme-complexes typically confer dangerous meme-allergies on their hosts. Often, the actual meme-allergens need not be present, but merely perceived to be present, to trigger a reaction. Common meme-allergies include homophobia, paranoid anti-Communism, and porno phobia. Common forms of meme-allergic reaction are censorship, vandalism, belligerent verbal abuse, and physical violence. (GMG)

meme-complex
A set of mutually-assisting memes which have co-evolved a symbiotic relationship. Religious and political dogmas, social movements, artistic styles, traditions and customs, chain letters, paradigms, languages, etc. are meme-complexes. Also called an m-plex, or scheme (Hofstadter). Types of co-memes commonly found in a scheme are called the: bait; hook; threat; and vaccime. A successful scheme commonly has certain attributes: wide scope (a paradigm that explains much); opportunity for the carriers to participate and contribute; conviction of its self-evident truth (carries Authority); offers order and a sense of place, helping to stave off the dread of meaninglessness. (Wheelis, quoted by Hofstadter.)

memeoid, or memoid
A person "whose behavior is so strongly influenced by a [meme] that their own survival becomes inconsequential in their own minds." (Henson) (Such as: Kamikazes, Shiite terrorists, Jim Jones followers, any military personnel). Hosts and membots are not necessarily memeoids. (See auto-toxic; exo-toxic.)

meme pool
The full diversity of memes accessible to a culture or individual. Learning languages and traveling are methods of expanding one's meme pool.

memetic
Related to memes.

memetic drift
Accumulated mis-replications; (the rate of) memetic mutation or evolution. Written texts tend to slow the memetic drift of dogmas (Henson).

memetic engineer
One who consciously devises memes, through meme-splicing and memetic synthesis, with the intent of altering the behavior of others. Writers of manifestos and of commercials are typical memetic engineers. (GMG)

memeticist
1. One who studies memetics. 2. A memetic engineer. (GMG)

memetics
The study of memes and their social effects.

memotype
1. The actual information-content of a meme, as distinct from its sociotype. 2. A class of similar memes. (GMG)

meta-meme
Any meme about memes (such as: "tolerance", "metaphor").

Meta-meme, the
The concept of memes, considered as a meme itself.

Millennial meme, the
Any of several currently-epidemic memes which predict catastrophic events for the year 2000, including the battle of Armageddon, the Rapture, the thousand-year reign of Jesus, etc. The "Imminent New Age" meme is simply a pan-denominational version of this. (Also called the `Endmeme.')

mimicry
An infection strategy in which a meme attempts to imitate the semiotics of another successful meme. Such as: pseudo-science (Creationism, UFOlogy); pseudo-rebelliousness (Heavy Metal); subversion by forgery (Situationist detournement). (GMG)

replication strategy
Any memetic strategy used by a meme to encourage its host to repeat the meme to other people. The hook co-meme of a meme-complex. (GMG)

retromeme
A meme which attempts to splice itself into an existing meme-complex (example: Marxist-Leninists trying to co-opt other sociotypes). (GMG)

scheme
A meme-complex. (Hofstadter.)

sociotype
1. The social expression of a memotype, as the body of an organism is the physical expression (phenotype) of the gene (genotype). Hence, the Protestant Church is one sociotype of the Bible's memotype. 2. A class of similar social organisations. (GMG)

threat
The part of a meme-complex that encourages adherence and discourages mis-replication. ("Damnation to Hell" is the threat co-meme in many religious schemes.) (See: bait, hook, vaccime.) (Hofstadter)

Tolerance
A meta-meme which confers resistance to a wide variety of memes (and their sociotypes), without conferring meme-allergies. In its purest form, Tolerance allows its host to be repeatedly exposed to rival memes, even intolerant rivals, without active infection or meme-allergic reaction. Tolerance is a central co-meme in a wide variety of schemes, particularly "liberalism", and "democracy". Without it, a scheme will often become exo-toxic and confer meme-allergies on its hosts. Since schemes compete for finite belief-space, tolerance is not necessarily a virtue, but it has co-evolved in the ideosphere in much the same way as co-operation has evolved in biological ecosystems. (Henson.)

vaccime
(pron. vak-seem) Any meta-meme which confers resistance or immunity to one or more memes, allowing that person to be exposed without acquiring an active infection. Also called an `immuno-meme.' Common immune-conferring memes are "Faith", "Loyalty", "Skepticism", and "tolerance". (See: meme-allergy.) (GMG.)

Every scheme includes a vaccime to protect against rival memes. For instance:

  • Conservatism: automatically resist all new memes.
  • Orthodoxy: automatically reject all new memes.
  • Science: test new memes for theoretical consistency and (where applicable) empirical repeatability; continually re-assess old memes; accept schemes only conditionally, pending future re:-assessment.
  • Radicalism: embrace one new scheme, reject all others.
  • Nihilism: reject all schemes, new and old.
  • New Age: accept all esthetically-appealing memes, new and old, regardless of empirical (or even internal) consistency; reject others. (Note that this one doesn't provide much protection.)
  • Japanese: adapt (parts of) new schemes to the old ones.

vector
A medium, method, or vehicle for the transmission of memes. Almost any communication medium can be a memetic vector. (GMG)

Villain vs. Victim
An infection strategy common to many meme-complexes, placing the potential host in the role of Victim and playing on their insecurity, as in: "the bourgeoisie is oppressing the proletariat" (Hofstadter). Often dangerously toxic to host and society in general. Also known as the "Us-and-Them" strategy.


Share-Right (S), 1990, by Glenn Grant, Montreal. <www.istop.com/~ggrant/> (You may reproduce this material, only if your recipients may also reproduce it, you do not change it, and you include this notice [see: threat].