What's In a Meme?

You think you know memes because you see pictures of cute cats, or celebrities with funny sayings. You think because you share them on Facebook that you understand them. What if I told you that you are using the meme wrong?

The concept of the Meme originated with, evolutionary biologist, outspoken atheist, and celebrity author, Richard Dawkins. Coined in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

Modeled on the word gene, Meme is a shortening of mimeme (from Ancient Greek μίμημα pronounced [míːmɛːma] mīmēma, which refers to an "imitated thing". According to the theory, a meme is a unit of human culture (like pants, paper clips, ice cream, invoices, birthdays, or skyscrapers. It is basically a word for human innovations that, like genes, can adapt, and replicate.

The concept of the meme began to take shape in the 1990s with the advent of memetics - a field dedicated to the study of the concept.  I have a couple of books on my reading list besides Dawkins The Selfish Gene, including The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore. Media Virus, by Douglas Rushkoff, and Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie. As well as a book that pushes back on the theory by theologian Alistair McGrath, Dawkin's God, Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life. I have to admit, I love the concept. It complements my concept of the church as a living organism, capable of spontaneous growth and self replication. along peer-to-peer networks.

I first came across the concept when I was working on my paper, on the diffusion of the game  Tetris. At the time I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point, and thinking about his chapter on what makes ideas "sticky".  Meme's provided a more thorough analysis of why some ideas are copied and others are not, similar to ideas Everett Rogers lays out in The Diffusion of Innovation.

Francis Heylighen has this excellent post on memetic selection criteria on his website Principia Cybernetica.[1] He writes,
Why are some memes copied, while others are not? If we remain with the biological metaphor, the process of selection would be determined by meme “fitness”.  Some meme’s have a memetic advantage over others; just as some genes have a genetic advantage.  Those memes which are the fittest are the ones that are selected to get passed on. 
Francis Heylighen has developed what he calls “memetic selection criteria”. Baring similarities to Tarde’s “laws of imitation” and Rogers’ “factors affecting the rate of adoption” Heylighen’s “memetic selection criteria” state that, “During the different stages of their life-cycle, memes are subjected to objective, subjective, inter-subjective, and meme-centered selection critera”

Table 1 Heylighen's Memetic Selection Criteria















Below is my use of Heylighen's concepts in my paper on the early spread of the game Tetris along social networks. Before Tetris entered the proprietary software system of the West, it spread at an unprecedented rate through the Soviet Union through peer to peer networks, without marketing. In fact its entry into the proprietary system was intended to restrict its spread in the west and harness its potential for profit.

Here I give a description of each of the four stages of diffusion, and explain which selectors made Tetris a particular "sticky" meme.


Distinctiveness suggests that phenomena that are detailed or contrasted are more likely to be noticed and understood, and consequently assimilated.

Novelty facilitates assimilation process by attracting the subject's attention.
Simplicity facilitates assimilation because it requires less processing for the meme to be understood.

Coherence refers to the ease with which the new meme can "fit in" with the memory that is already there. (Coherence also facilitates the retention stage because memories that cohere are easier to retrieve and use and therefore are less likely to be forgotten).

Memes from authoritative sources, i.e. hosts or vehicles that are held in high regard or considered to represent expertise in the domain, will be more easily assimilated.

Formality (precise, unambiguous expression,) also assists in the assimilation process, at least of the original memetic content of the expression. It contributes to what Dawkins calls “copying fidelity”. On the other hand, informal expression, because it tends to be simpler, may facilitate assimilation, but of an idea different from the one initially expressed.[2]  

Self-justification, the degree to which the components of memes mutually support each other, will also facilitate understanding and acceptance.

Assimilation of Tetris

Tetris possesses several characteristics that would facilitate the assimilation stage of Heylighen’s model.  The first characteristic being distinctiveness.  This was especially demonstrated in the film.  Belikov (the director of the Moscow Computer Center,) notes how Tetris differs from games produced in the West, which are typically noisy and violent.  This distinctiveness gave Tetris a competitive edge at the Game Expo, where Henk Roger’s (Bulletproof Software,) notices it for the first time.  He said it was the quietest game there.

Then there was the novelty of the game.  The Soviet Union was mysterious to most westerners, and as it was mentioned in the film, everybody in the West would like to own something from behind the Iron Curtain. Atari even attempted to emphasize this aspect of the game by creating a marketing campaign which played off the James Bond film “From Russia With Love”. Their plan however, was thwarted when Nintendo was awarded sole rights to the console version of the Game.

Another factor contributing to the success of the assimilation stage was the games simplicity.  Tetris is a game with a high degree of front end simplicity, and back end complexity.  It only takes a few minutes to learn how to play.  The concept is very simple “rotate the bricks that are falling to the bottom of the screen and place them in the most efficient order”.  Beyond this, however the game is very complex because the bricks don’t necessarily fall in the order you need them too, forcing you to put them aside in a way that will not permit them to pile up on you. And the speed of the game keeps increasing, forcing you to make these decisions faster.  The simplicity at the front end of the game lures players in, and the complexity at the back end keeps them hooked.

The community of Gamers and PC users has a high level of innovativeness and so authority plays less of a role in the adoption process.  As a peer community, it is characterized by “anti-credentialism”.  People are willing to try out new software or games because the risk is low.  The only barrier is cost, which is easily sidestepped when users engage in file sharing or cartridge swapping (common in these circles).  Using Roger’s terminology, this makes the “trialability” of computer games is very high.[3] 

Formality is also very high, maintaining “Copying Fidelity”. Because relatively few people understand code, few people will attempt to make modifications.  The copying process is left to the users PC, which produces an exact copy every time.  Only those who understand code can modify the game, but anybody can copy it however.  This two tiered transmission process ensures that most versions of the game that get passed on will have memetic integrity and be viable versions of the game.

Successful games have a way of reinforcing PC usage and PC usage has a way of encouraging the adoption of new Games.  This mutual reinforcement satisfies Heylighen’s “self justification” criteria.  Roger’s refers to research which indicates that, playing computer games can help familiarize people to their PC’s and lessens computer anxiety.[4] Every new PC comes with several games pre-installed, (FreeCell, Minesweeper, Pinball) as well as more pragmatic software (Microsoft Word, Excel, Power Point).  This process, called “bundling” related to what Rogers calls technology clusters, one or more distinguishable elements of technology that are perceived as being interrelated used by a change agency to promote a cluster or package of innovations to the client.[5]  This strategy was demonstrated in the film when Nintendo included Tetris in the release of their new handheld GameBoy.


Invariance criterion, pertains to phenomena that recur independently of the way in which they are perceived.

Controllability denotes phenomena which react differentially to the subject's actions; both these criteria are more likely to leave a permanent memory trace than memes which lack them.

The utility of memes will increase the frequency of use and reinforce assimilation.  

Conformity, the reinforcement of the same meme by different hosts belonging to the same group, will boost acceptance and retention.  

Self-Reinforcement, is the degree to which the meme stimulates its host to rehearse itself will strengthen retention.    

Intolerance, indicates the degree to which a meme excludes rival memes from being assimilated or retained, will also help the meme to retain a stable position in memory.

Retention of Tetris

 For the game of Tetris the qualities of controllability, utility, conformity, self reinforcement, and intolerance are interesting.  One of the things which makes computer games fun is that they are interactive, that is they have a high level of controllability.  Tetris combines controllability with simplicity enhancing the user’s sense of competence early in the game.  Games that require beginners to learn a lot of complicated sequential actions to perform maneuvers discourage the adoption process for beginners.

We often overlook the utility of games to satisfy our need for play.  Though culturally we may not be able to eloquently articulate the deep need this satisfies, we still find ourselves playing games.  On the pragmatic level, video games have been show to increase eye-hand coordination, pattern recognition, and multi-tasking.[6]  

The aspect of conformity was evident at the Moscow Computer Center and Spectrum Holobyte where decision of some people to play Tetris influenced and reinforced the decisions of others to play Tetris.

Several people in the film described the game in terms that seemed addictive. The observation of obsessive behavior in players of the game is reflected in Belikov’s observation, that the whole computer center was playing the game to the detriment of their work. The addictive quality of the game grows out of the structure of Tetris itself.  The simplicity of the game lures you in.  It appeals to the constructive side of the brain; you get the sense that you are working for a purpose.  But there is also a strong negative motivation; every row you successfully fill in disappears, leaving only your mistakes.  The simplicity of the game lures you back to try and do better the next time. This addictive quality satisfies Heylighen’s self reinforcement criteria as well as the intolerance.

Expressivity and Transmission

The last two stages appear to be closely related and therefore will be discussed together. Expressivity, refers to the ease with which the meme can be expressed in an inter-subjective medium.  

Publicity is the effort put by the host(s) into the broad distribution of the message, and

proselytism is the degree to which the meme urges its host to maximally spread the meme to other hosts.

Expressivity and Transmission of Tetris

The expressivity of Tetris can be seen in how the process of adoption, for many of the people in the film was influenced by seeing others playing the game.  The early transmission of Tetris demonstrated strong proselytism and dynamic publicity making use of Peer to Peer distribution networks (hereafter referred to as P2P,) which will be discussed in the next section."

So Meme's are a powerful explanatory metaphor that can help us to analyze the "stickiness" of ideas, as well potentially positioning new ideas for successful adoption and transmission. In my next post I will look at a chapter from Alistair McGrath's book Christianity's Dangerous Idea, and examine the success of early Calvinism using Heylighen's categories.

[1]Heylighen, Francis. http://pcp.vub.ac.be/MEMSELC.html. See also the following articles.
Heylighen F. (1992) : "Selfish Memes and the Evolution of Cooperation", Journal of Ideas , Vol. 2, #4, pp 77-84.
Heylighen F. (1998): "What makes a meme successful? Selection criteria for cultural evolution", in: Proc. 16th Int. Congress on Cybernetics (Association Internat. de Cybernetique, Namur), p. 423-418.
Heylighen F. (1997):"Objective, subjective and intersubjective selectors of knowledge", Evolution and Cognition 3:1, p. 63-67.

[2] Rogers on “Re-Invention” p184-188
[3] Rogers on “Trialability” p 258
[4] Rogers on “Adoption of New Communication Technologies” p 419-420
[5] Rogers on “Technology Clusters” p 249
[6] There are several studies indicating this fact, see Everything Bad is Good for You, by Steven Johnson.

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