Memes, self reproducing mental information structures analogous to genes in biology, can be seen as the basis for an explanatory model of cultural and psychological behaviour. Their properties and effects are evolutionary conditioned and ultimately seeks to promote their replication. To survive in a context the memes must meet certain conditions. We abstract a model of these conditions and use it to analyse three well-known memes: the "Kilroy was here" graffiti, urban legends and Christianity.
1. What is a Meme?
a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.What makes the meme concept so powerful is its close analogies to the theory of natural selection. Natural selection occurs whenever the following conditions exist (Dennet 1990):
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Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate in the gene pool via a process which, in the broad sense can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures . If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.
It should be noted that human decisions are part of the memetic selection process; from the perspective of the memetic ecology humans and human behaviour corresponds to the climatic and geological environment of biological life. In the meme perspective, it is more accurate to say that the message has evolved into its form in order to encourage people to spread it than to say that people have selected or 'bred' the message into its form.
Although people often make the decision to spread a meme or not consciously, this process is influenced by the meme. Some memes are viewed as important, and hence spread to others after a conscious and sometimes rational evaluation; some memes exploit aspects of cognition or emotion to bias their hosts to spread them. Natural selection favours memes that are good at reproducing, which suggests that in time there will exist many memes that are very efficient replicators. Their accuracy is irrelevant for their survival, only their ability to replicate and find new hosts; memes that interest people and encourage them to spread the meme will thrive at the expense of less attractive versions.
What makes the meme perspective so interesting is that it suggests that some of what we have learned from biology can be applied to human psychology. Dawkins points out that "a cultural trait may have evolved in the way it has simply because it is advantageous to itself" . Gross (1996) says
The main shift in thinking that needs to take place is to look at the spread of the legend not so much from the point of view of the people who propagate the warning, but from the point of view of the warning itself.In memetics, ideas are viewed as almost independent creatures in a symbiotic relationship with human minds and cultures.
A meme is a (cognitive) information-structure able to replicate using human hosts and to influence their behaviour to promote replication.This is a somewhat strict definition, since it excludes many structures able to replicate without influencing host behaviour or using non-human hosts such as chimpanzees, dolphins and computers. It can be seen as a subset of the more general memes described by Dawkins.
Memes do not only influence behaviour to promote replication, but many of the most successful memes have other side-effects (for example, being able to invoke various emotions) or promote their replication by being useful or through other features (like parasiting on other memes, e.g. parodies and imitations); using a biological analogy one could say symbiotic memes spread mainly using their usefulness, while parasitic memes compel the host to spread them. This compulsion can be more or less subtle, ranging from explicit orders like in chain letters ("Send ten copies of this letter to your friends") to implicit influences that link with our attitudes like the "Save the whales" meme described in (Hofstadter 1985, p. 55).
It is quite common that memes are confused with ideas/thoughts. Both are cognitive structures, but an idea is not self-replicating and is spread passively (i.e. for extrinsic reasons) if it is spread beyond its initial host at all. The difference is sometimes hazy; the idea "Isn't it time for us to eat?" can easily spread in a small group, but will not spread well outside the group and will disappear once the question is settled, while a meme usually can spread generally and does not have any limited lifespan.
It should also be noted that memes often form meme complexes, groups of memes
mutually supporting each other and replicating together. The dividing line between a
meme and a meme complex is yet again diffuse. In this text we will not try to
distinguish between the two.
1.2. Issues in Memetics
1.2.1. The Meme - Gene Analogy
Much fuss has been made over this analogy since it was introduced by Dawkins in his
"The Selfish Gene". When Dawkins introduced this analogy it was to give us a
meaningful comparison in the light of which we would better understand the concept of
memes. This was done to help our initial phase of understanding;
unfortunately, many memeticists has not left this area. Many writers have scrutinised
the comparison with the gene to see if it really is analogous or not, i.e. Hans-Cees Speel
(1996). Although this has provided interesting reading we feel that it is a bit beside the
point. The importance of memes lies not in whether they are mental copies of the genes
and obey the same laws as the genes do or don't, but rather in how they work and what
they are capable of (and not capable of). We do not feel that you can reach a complete
understanding of this only by comparing them to other things. You have to study the
idea of memes in it self.
This is why we have chosen to make a detailed study of what we can call "the memetic
life-cycle", to try to discover its inner memetic workings. Our aim is to find a model
that, whether analogous to the genetic life-cycle or not, is sound and supported by
studies of existing memes.
In the field of memetics there are a couple of different definitions of "host", "vector"
and "meme" around, and there is a tendency to make these wide to the point of being
meaningless. We want operational definitions that are usable and still distinct.
Therefore, in this paper, we are going to use the words "host" and "vector" as such
(meme has already been defined above):
Host = A host must be able to possess at least the potential capacity to elaborate on the meme and to perform those cognitive tasks connected to the meme that we normally refer to as "understanding". This means that only humans can be hosts (animals can perhaps become hosts for simpler memes, but we will not discuss this here), at least until the development of artificial intelligences reaches further.
Vector = A vector is anything that transports the meme between hosts without the
capacity to reflect on the meme. Examples are a wall, a voice, an email-program, or a
picture. Can a human be a vector? Yes she can, if she lacks the cognitive capacity (or
interest) to elaborate on a specific meme. Then she is just a non-reflective carrier of the
meme, much the same as a book. Note though that the human vector is still a potential
host - or inactive host (Grant, 1990) - for the meme, should she suddenly
choose to analyse the meme (in its widest sense) or achieve the contextual
understanding which would make this possible.
1.2.3. The Conscious Meme
It is worth noting that although the terminology used in genetics and memetics
sometimes seems to indicate that genes and memes act upon their own conscious will,
this is of course not the case. Genes and memes are not conscious, and they do not have
a will as such to act upon. But it is practical and economical to speak as if they do, since
their behaviour follows such patterns.
This way of speaking can be seen as lazy shorthand; "a meme wants X" means "the fitness of a meme is enhanced by X".
In the following we will discuss the intrinsic factors of the meme that contributes to its fitness, and those external factors that mesh with them. We will look at the factors that help or hinder a meme in each of the phases of its lifecycle as depicted in Figure 1. These factors will be summarized below in an extended version of the model (Figure 2).
A successful meme will be good at exploiting these factors in its environment, while
memes that cannot exploit them well will be out-competed and eventually go extinct. If
one phase presents an insurmountable obstacle to the meme, it will be unable to
reproduce and survive. This allows us to make estimates of memetic viability.
2.1. Transmission Phase
In the transmission phase the meme is encoded in a vector, some kind of information-
carrying medium. Which medium is used strongly depends on the meme, both how it
can be expressed (influenced by its complexity, the need for copying-fidelity
and the requirements of its semantic form) and how it "wants" to be expressed.
Often the medium is strongly linked with the meme or an actual part of it, as in the case
of the "Kilroy was here" meme where part of the meme is the graffiti itself, suggesting
the possibility of scrawling it on some suitable surface; "The medium is the message"
as Marshall McLuhan put it. Memes are able to shift between media, sometimes with a
mutating effect on the meme (such as the major differences between the Hunchback
of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo and the same story told by Disney).
It is interesting to see how memes and media have co-evolved: many media have been developed as memetic vectors, able to encode memes indefinitely and with a high degree of exactness, while memes have evolved to use them and exploit their peculiarities.
Dawkins (1976) suggests three qualities of a meme that gives it a high survival value:
longevity, fecundity and copying fidelity. Longevity and copying-fidelity are most
significant in the transmission phase (although longevity can also be seen as the meme's
ability to remain in memory for a long time), and are strongly linked with the properties
of the medium. Heylighen (1994) also points out that ease of communication increases
memetic fitness, either through creating salient behaviour that is easy to imitate or by
being able to be clearly expressed.
2.1.1. Reproduction Ability
The more copies of itself a meme can encode in vectors, the higher fitness does it have
(by definition). This implies that memes would thrive in media where it is easy to make
numerous copies and distribute them widely. From a memetic standpoint, the ideal
medium is a broadcast medium where many copies can be made cheaply. If it is one-to-
many such as radio, then the memes of the broadcaster will spread with little feedback;
this supports a less diverse memetic ecology than a many-to-many network, but also
promotes the memes of the sender more strongly. In a many-to-many medium such as
the Internet there are multiple meme sources, and the memetic diversity is high.
Two typical examples of the influence of reproduction ability are "xeroxlore" ("You
don't have to be insane to work here, but it helps") that can be found in almost every
modern office thanks to photocopiers, and Internet spams ("Make Money Fast!") that
thrive in the broadcast environment of the Internet; neither meme would be possible
without easy copying.
2.1.2. Copying Fidelity
While mutation leads to evolution, it also risks to destroy or degrade the meme. Just as
in biological organisms a balance has to exist between evolvability and copying fidelity
(Kelly 1994, p. 537). Many memes have properties that enhance their copying fidelity,
often by making errors in encoding noticeable (note the analogy to error-detecting and
-correcting codes cf. (Biggs 1985)).
2.1.2.a. Non-alteration Policy
Some memes explicitly forbid any alteration of themselves, such as the instructions
given in chain letters, the copyright notices of public domain information (only
unaltered copying is allowed) and many sacred formulae, that warn of awful
consequences if they should be altered. They increase their copying fidelity by making
the host careful in encoding them well.
Cohesiveness may also improve copying fidelity by introducing patterns that support
the copying and transmission process. Poetry becomes stable by using rhyme and meter,
since mutations create obvious errors that can be corrected. Many memes contain
noteworthy features such as humour, commonly known symbols or repetition (cf. the
common use of groups of three in myths). Incidentally, these properties also make
memory encoding and retrieval easier.
Another way of achieving high copying fidelity and a low mutation rate is simplicity. A
short meme is less likely to be changed, and may even be "brittle" Ğ any change makes
it obviously unusable to the encoder, and thus prevents mutation. Longer or larger
memes can survive only in media with high copying fidelity and low copying costs.
A fourth way of achieving a low mutation rate in the vector form is to concentrate on
making potential hosts understand the meme, not to ensure perfect copying fidelity
(which may not be possible in some media, such as the spoken word). By repeated
exposure, a potential host will not only recreate the meme from possibly distorted
encodings, but also be more likely to become infected. This is an especially useful
strategy for meme complexes, large memes and memes with high abstractability since
they can (and often must) be transmitted piecemeal.
The meme has to be able to survive in the medium, and the medium itself has to
survive. Memes that can be encoded in durable vectors such as books, great art or major
myths can spread almost unchanged for millennia, while memes encoded in ephemeral
vectors such as the spoken word have to spread from host to host quickly and are also
more likely to mutate into new variants.
Some memes can be encoded in a large variety of vectors, while others are fixed in a
single medium. Canonical examples are funny stories, which can be spoken, acted,
written or drawn, and graffiti, which is its own vector.
A meme that can pass from one medium to another can spread more easily and change
into forms more able to infect new hosts, but is of course more sensitive to mutations.
One strategy that works well together with high abstractability is the understanding-
repeated exposure strategy, since it decreases the mutation rate and partially relies on
the abstractability of the meme.
Finally, a meme must ensure that its vector is possible to decode for new potential
hosts. Most artificial media used for information and meme storage are intended to be
easy to decode (Dawkins would say there is a memetic selection effect here: the memes
of creating media that have low decodability would not be replicated as much as the
memes of creating high-decodability media, which would tend to dominate), but many
natural media such as behaviour are not necessarily easy to decode.
Observed behaviour can be viewed as a medium of meme transmission; this is
essentially social learning theory (Bandura 1977) restated in a memetic framework.
Many behaviours (e.g. gestures such as applauding) are learned this way with no verbal
explanation even at an early age and reinforced through positive feedback.
A classic example of behaviour transmission (although somewhat outside our strict definition of memes) is the spread of food-washing observed among Japanese monkeys: in 1952 monkeys on the island Koshima were given sweet potatoes by researchers. The potatoes were left on the beach, and while the monkeys enjoyed the food they disliked the sand. One monkey, 18-month Ima, found that she could get rid of the sand by washing the potatoes in a stream or the sea. Other monkeys observed her behaviour and repeated it as they found that it had positive results, until after a few years practically all monkeys except the oldest washed their food .
It should be noted that some memes increase their fitness by making decoding harder . Belonging to an exclusive group increases self-esteem; memes that can only be decoded by some hosts will thus provide them with a feeling of superiority (whose strength depends on the exclusiveness of the meme and other factors) and thus gain a certain infective advantage. The popularity of secret languages among children and secret orders among the upper classes demonstrate this.
A hard-to-decode meme requires more mental activity to decode, which makes infection
more likely if the salient aspects of the meme can be reasonably sure to be decoded in
the process, and suggests (through cognitive dissonance) a higher value of the meme. If
the meme can also be interpreted in several or arbitrary ways, it is also more likely that
potential hosts settle for interpretations that fits their attitudes the best. An example of
this class of meme is alchemical writings, which are heavily cloaked in symbolism and
riddles: the bait is the promise of powerful knowledge (which doesn't have to be
delivered if the riddles are hard enough), the meme itself is the symbolical language of
alchemy and the hook that leads to transmission is the self-enhancing feeling of
spreading esoteric wisdom to the select few who can understand it.
Decoding is when a potential host interprets and restructures the information pattern of
the meme in the vector by perceiving and understanding, and thus creates a mental copy
of the meme. In other words, if a meme is to infect a host, it must first be perceived by
the host, then decoded to fit the host's schemata. The possibility of infection arises after
decoding. Many of these decoding processes are automatic and/or subconscious.
2.2.1. Understanding and Interest
If the host is incapable of understanding the meme or even incapable of perceiving it in
the form in which it is being transmitted, the meme will not proceed to the infection
phase. Memes that in some way promote their perception, by being encoded in a
noticeable vector, by containing strong emotional content or otherwise arouse interest
will have an increased likelihood of infecting the host.
Understanding is in this case not limited to conscious understanding, as in the case of
copying a popular fashion, neither is it always necessary that the host acquires a
complete and correct understanding of the meme (see the "Kilroy was here" example) if
it can later be fully decoded using the repetition strategy.
2.2.2. Pro- and Contra-memes
There is a possibility that the potential host is infected by memes with the function of
counteracting or helping the current meme. Such memes are often symbiotic parts of
larger meme-complexes, with the function of indirectly promoting itself trough the
promotion of its meme-complex. A typical example is religions, which promotes trust
in the teachings of the religious authorities (pro-memes) and often contain memes
denouncing competing religions as heresy (contra-memes).
Contra-memes act by making their hosts automatically reject memes that do not fit the
dominant cognitive structures. Often they act by creating a strong emotional response or
attributing negative traits to the meme (knee-jerk reactions). In the same way pro-
memes create positive attributions of certain memes and ease their assimilation.
2.3. Infection Phase
After successful decoding the meme becomes part of the host's mental structures, and
this is called infection. A person who does not remember a meme at all is not infected.
A person that does remember a meme but who's behaviour is not affected has thus
become a human vector. A person whose behaviour is affected by a meme has been
actively infected and can potentially transmit it to other hosts.
The following factors will influence whether an active infection will occur or
2.3.1. Ability to Fit Cognitive Structures
The meme must fit into the present schemata of the host to be seriously considered. A
meme that assumes that God exists will probably not be successful in the mind of an
atheist. To convince this person, an extensive set of pro-memes would have to be
successful in infecting the atheist, thus reconfiguring the cognitive structures of its host
to that of a religious person.
2.3.2. Threat / Bait
Most memes use threats or temptations to make the host accept the meme. If the meme
appears to provide an advantage over previous memes, it can replace them (but it should
be noted that older memes may have infiltrated the motivation structure of the host,
making her unwilling to switch views anyway). Threats are even more potent, since
potential risks are evaluated more strongly than potential gains (Kahneman and Tversky
1982), which means that a threatening meme often can out-compete a tempting meme.
Often threats and baits are combined to further enhance the meme. Many religions use
this in propagating themselves, promising the faithless a hot afterlife (threatening) and
the faithful a fluffy and light one (tempting).
If a meme is to be spread by a host for a long time, the host must remember the meme.
If a host is infected and later forgets the meme and/or stops acting out the new
behaviour before the host has spread the meme on, the host has not done the meme any
more good than if the host had not been infected in the first place. Thus successful
memes encourage permanent or long-lasting changes in the host. Note that it is not
necessary for the hosts to remember the meme itself, just change their behaviours in a
way that will promote the spread of the (reconstructed) meme.
This can be achieved in several ways:
2.3.3.a. Assimilation / accommodation
If the meme can be assimilated into existing schemata, it will be supported by them. If
the meme can somehow force an accommodation, it will have even better chances of
becoming a vital part of a long-lasting mental structure (and this also gives it an
excellent position from which to act as a contra- or pro-meme).
Something that a host actively thinks about is less likely to be forgotten, and also more
likely to influence behaviour. Thus memes that encourage thinking or fantasising about
themselves or related concepts have increased chances of survival. Rituals and
ceremony are often powerful reminders of the meme.
2.3.3.c. External storage
Since human memory tends to be rather uncertain, external memory aids can also aid
memes greatly not just as vectors, but as memory feedback.
If a host is infected by a scientific meme-complex he will be encouraged to read books
relating to the meme complex. The host becomes likely to learn more and more about
the theories rather than forgetting parts of them, and should he forget something
relevant he can look it up again, the books can serve as memory feedback loops and
also act as vectors for other parts of the meme-complex causing further infection.
2.3.4. Storage Time
The longer a meme infects its host, the more chances it has to be spread on to other
potential hosts, but there is also an increased risk of mutation. Some memes have
limited lifetimes determined by outside factors, such as millennial memes ("The world
will be destroyed on Tuesday!") whose fitness decrease significantly after a set date (but
before that date gain in fitness by being actual and urgent). There are examples of
computer viruses that destroy themselves after a predefined goal, like making X copies
of itself or residing for X days in the computer (Dawkins 1993), which are surprisingly
similar to the instructions of chain letters Ğ after making the copies and sending them,
the host is no longer instructed to spread the meme.
Survival of the meme depend upon whether or not the meme can handle or use the
following problems in the host mind:
2.3.5.a. External Contra-Memes
An infection may be subject to contra-memes, trying to "cure" the infection after it has
become active, as opposed to a contra-memes struggle to prevent an infection in the
decoding phase. A contra-meme does not have to be specifically directed towards its
counterpart, it only has to counteract the intention of its counterpart. Survival requires a
meme to withstand their attacks. Many obviously false but firmly believed memes can
be surprisingly tenacious in the face of opposing evidence (Gross 1996).
If a meme can make the host assimilate or accommodate contra-schemata to protect
itself, it is less likely to have to deal with external contra-memes or competitors. The
meme complex of atheism is likely to give its host a defence against any religious
meme complex. This defence is practically an immunity since a convinced atheist wont
even consider listening to a religious host with an open attitude. The opposite seems to
If the meme is widely enough defined, or is a generally accepted concept, it can
assimilate all other memes because it is more general and can be used as a context
which can explain all necessary functions. Many religions claim to explain the worlds
creation and other phenomena better than modern science.
2.4. Encoding and Spread
The meme must replicate itself if it wants to be successful, that is, to spread to and
infect more hosts. Quantity is important for some memes in order to survive, especially
weak memes which do not occupy the ideosphere (the universe of ideas, an analogy of
the biosphere (Monod 1970)) of their host for long since they are easily forgotten. As a
reaction they try to infect as many hosts in as little time as possible. A typical example
of this is chain-letters.
Other memes have a more targeted area of hosts. The target hosts are the only ones
necessary for the survival of the meme, but they are on the other hand crucial. This kind
of meme is often evolved to survive better in a single host over time than the quality-
oriented one, since the spreading of this second meme type often involves a more
complex and time-consuming infection process (as in religion).
2.4.1. Hooks and motivation
A host doesn't start to spread a particular meme all by herself. She has to be motivated.
To this extent, memes have a particular trait, or a co-meme, called a hook. The
hook is what encourages the host to spread the meme. A common hook relies on
humans altruism. It works like this (after Hofstadter 1985, p. 55):
ALTRUISTIC PREMISE: I (the host) don't want any harm to befall my friends.Another type of hook is of course the opposite, the threat directed towards the host. This is an efficient tool not only for spreading, but works also to minimise mutation ("You will be tormented if you misread the doctrine") and to guarantee a firm place in the host's ideosphere ("You will be tormented if you lose faith").
MEME HOOK: "Anyone who doesn't believe in this doctrine will be tormented in the afterlife."
CONCLUSION: Since the doctrine is true, and since the premise is true, I will make sure that my friends starts to believe in the doctrine .
Naturally, all hooks aren't as elaborate as the ones above. These types are normally found in the larger meme complexes. But singular memes are equipped with the hook co-meme too. Take, for instance, the joke. Why do you tell a joke? Maybe because you want to make people happy, and/or you want to be appreciated or popular. The hook for telling - and spreading - a joke would then be something like this:
MEME HOOK: "If you tell people something funny they will be happy and they will appreciate you."Hopefully, this is enough to motivate you to start spreading the meme. A hook should obviously not contradict common sense and in a meme complex it should ultimately feel like a natural extension of the meme complex. This is to make sure the hook is easily, and preferably automatically, activated. A complicated hook that demands a lot of conscious elaboration in order to be activated has doomed the meme by inhibiting the possibilities of swift reproduction.
Note that the above-mentioned meme hook is not married to a particular joke. Rather, it
is implicit in the hosts disposition towards jokes in general. Whereas the hook for, say,
a chain letter is explicit and tells you what to with this particular letter and this letter
Another important determinant in how successful the spreading of a particular meme
will be is the feedback. This includes direct as well as indirect feedback.
Direct feedback is the immediate response you get when trying to spread the meme. Did the new host get infected (Did she laugh at you joke)? Was the vector you chose a satisfying medium? Indirect feedback concerns matters such as how often you recognise the meme in different media and whether it seems like a lot of people inhabit the meme (and thereby strengthen your own belief in it). In other words, indirect feedback is your recognition of the spreading meme apart from your own participation in the process. You can naturally recognise some indirect feedback as being partly a result of your own reproduction of the meme, but only in the sense of your meme spreading being part of a larger meme-spreading complex. If your actions are the exclusive producer of the feedback, then the feedback is always direct.
Positive feedback strengthens the belief in the meme and encourages the spread,
whether negative feedback works in the opposite direction. Strong enough negative
feedback can actually kill the meme in the original host, if the meme is not equipped to
handle a situation like that. Successful memeplexes are well prepared, e.g. the religious
defence "If they don't believe you they work for the devil, and you should avoid further
contact.". But for smaller memes, negative feedback often proves to be fatal. This is
what happens when we say that a joke "wears out", we start to receive negative
feedback because everybody is tired of the joke and eventually we stop telling it.
2.4.3. Survival through Vectors
As always, it is important for the meme to mutate as little as possible. But reproduction
must also be as easy as possible. An optimal vector should satisfy both these needs. The
Torah is an example of minimal mutation but extremely low reproduction rate. The
rabbis were forced to copy the original by hand, page by page, letter by letter. If one
letter got wrong they had to do the page all over again (Eco 1988, p. 569). Gutenberg
changed all that, and today the printed word is one of our most common vectors.
Another element which enhances the meme's possibilities is whether it survives a
transition from one media to another. Of course, this flexibility also enhances the risk
for mutation. One might think that memes lie dormant while in vectors, but this is not
necessarily so. With the advent of television and more interactive types of media, not to
mention the Internet, the meme have got the possibility to shape its vectors to the extent
that the media becomes the message, to paraphrase McLuhan. Examples of this are the
various cyberchurches which exist only on the Internet and preaches technosophy,
which aims to foster a spiritual appreciation for technology (Wright, 1996).
2.5. Summary of Model
In order to stay successful and reproductive, the meme has to complete the described
cycle over and over again - preferably with as little mutation as possible (unless
mutation is one of its particular characteristics, as in the example of urban legends,
below). The meme will die if it is unable to complete the cycle.
Our ambition it writing this paper has been to analyse the obstacles and ordeals which the meme has to face in its life-cycle, and to get an understanding of its workings. The result is summarised in fig. 2.
To show how this cycle applies in real life, we will now end this study by analysing three different well-known memes or meme complexes. While reading the examples, use fig. 2 as a tool to see the different phases.
While the meme spread well for several decades, it eventually went all but extinct in its active form. There seems to be several reasons for this:
It is very easy to reproduce, and due to its brevity the copying fidelity can be very high. Its decodability is also high, since after the second world war English became a lingua franca over a large part of the world and acquired a certain status. The meme was spread by English-speaking hosts, and would thus tend to end up in areas where English was understood at least by a part of the population.
The survival of graffiti is highly variable, but by its nature it is semi-permanent and intended to be highly visible, which ensures that more potential hosts notices it.
It is uncertain how well "Kilroy was here" can be abstracted. In its original form, the graffiti vector was an integral part of the meme and crucial to hint at that it should be reproduced. Later variants appeared, such as a cartoon figure and stickers, but they do not appear to have been as fertile, mostly because they were harder to copy.
The meme's intimate connection to its vector, e.g. walls, made it poorly fit to survive in other media. Also, the meme was very sensitive for mutations. It was enough that you changed one of its smallest parts, a letter, to seriously damage the meme.
It is of great help to understand this phrase, that is to know what the English words mean together. The problem of decoding the sentence is quite an easy one, but it is harder to decode what it really means. This is probably one of its strengths. One can find ones own explanation of its meaning. Further more it is small and simple. During a time when the meme is popular, the host also gets multiple chances to try to decode it.
Since the meme is without obvious meaning it is hard to contradict, so there should be no active defence against the meme. The meaninglessness of it can also invoke wandering thoughts about the meme, and actively elaborating is connected with better remembering.
What motivated people to spread the "Kilroy was here" meme? There was never any direct host-to-host contact in the case of this meme. This meant that no host received a direct positive feedback, which is a powerful reproduction booster. And there was no obvious hook accompanying the meme.
This is one of the great meme mysteries. Perhaps that was enough motivation to spread the meme, to become part of the mystery - and also, in the beginning, to share the joke of who this much-talked-about Kilroy character was. Thus, the host created a bond with a community of Kilroy writers, most of which she would never meet, but could still belong to. A feeling of belonging may have served as a hook to motivate the conscious spread of the meme.
The Kilroy writers only way of confirming that there were others was the indirect
feedback, but this is also the point. The Kilroy writers became invisible, even before
each other, so that the meme seemed to live its own life mysteriously reproducing on
the walls and the writers themselves could feel as privileged members of a mysterious
3.2. Urban Legends
Urban legends have been described (alt.folklore.urban FAQ) as stories that:
Appears mysteriously and spreads spontaneously in various forms.The first property suggests that they are memes, able to mutate and spreading with no link to the original creator (although some urban legends attribute the story to some proper authority to gain some measure of credibility; cf. Gross (1996)). The second property in part together with the third explain why they are replicated: they fill a psychological need for entertainment, emotion, reinforcement of attitudes and attention for the storyteller.
Contains elements of humour or horror (the horror often "punishes" someone who flouts society's conventions)
Makes good storytelling.
There has been much discussion about the links between traditional storytelling, urban legends, memorats  and rumours. Generally urban legends are apparently realistic stories but actually have a stylised content, with a simple plot which is often very visual and easily remembered and told (af Klintberg 1978, pp. 154). This contrasts to rumours, which are short (often just a simple statement with additional information) and lack epic structure. Both urban legends and rumours can be viewed as ways of spreading information in situations without official information and by releasing the tension of social uncertainty (Mullen 1972).
It is likely that rumours may evolve into urban legends. The classic study The
Psychology of Rumour by Allport and Postman (1947) suggests that a rumour will
become more stylised during spreading. This may be partially the result of the
experimental set-up, which is based on unilinear spread; in collective spread variations
tends to appear (Peterson and Gist 1951). These results are predicted by memetic
theory: in an unilinear spreading situation only transmission ability will be relevant
(since the number of hosts are small), while in a collective situation the increased
number of transmissions will also lead to mutation and variation. Once a rumour or
memorat taps into a good epic form due to a mutation or a deliberate change its spread
will be highly enhanced, and it becomes an urban myth which will spread fast.
3.2.1. Properties of the Meme
Urban legends are usually transmitted as oral tradition; different legends thrive in
different social groups. The mutation frequency is rather high due to the oral spread, but
this is counteracted by comparatively simple and strong storylines which can be
elaborated in various ways, often based on strongly interesting subjects such as sex,
death, the supernatural and embarrassment. The subjects all tend to promote listener
interest and hence replication.
To be accepted as anything other than a joke or pure horror story the legends need some measure of plausibility; often this is provided by referring to apparently real people and institutions (Gross 1996), the story shows that the people involved are "normal" people or a real "friend of a friend" (thus extending the storyteller's credibility indirectly to the presumed source).
Another reason to accept or remember the story is by hearing it from several independent sources; this appears to confirm its veracity, and minor inconsistencies can be explained away as being errors in re-telling.
Memetic theory predicts that legends that fit in well with the social schemata and attitudes of their hosts will have a higher fitness than legends that do not conform, and this seems to be supported by the changes that occur in urban legends over time. Some urban legends have survived for many decades, changing to fit in with changes in popular attitude or society. The myths about people being drugged in subways originally involved white slave trade, but today warn of dealers seeking to make more people dependent on drugs.
Bengt af Klintberg points out (1978, pp. 153) that it is possible to partially classify urban myths by the way they spread. Many spread in the characteristic way of rumours: an exponential spread until saturation followed by a die-back (sometimes caused by an official denial). The same rumour or urban myth can recur in other places with a similar way of spreading; in a surprising number of cases newspapers acts as vectors. Note the similarity to epidemics. These urban myths often deal with things relating to the listener's life, something that he or she could experience. But there are also urban legends that spread in a less explosive manner. Their contents are less likely to be experienced by the listener, and are told more as entertainment than actual events. Typical examples are the horror stories told by teenagers (af Klintberg 1978, pp. 181).
To survive memetically the legends do not need to be believed, since they provide other incentives for being told, but if the storyteller believes in the legend its spread and credibility will be enhanced and can be motivated even if it lacks obvious entertainment value. This may explain the difference between the fast- and slow-spreading legends.
Another important factor is that believable legends involve the listeners much more by
suggesting they could be the victims of the story; in the case of potential dangers (such
as the "rat in the pizza" stories) there is an incentive of remembering the danger and
passing on the knowledge.
Religions represent some of the most powerful and elaborate meme complexes in
existence today; they have evolved over millennia into countless variants and co-
evolved with cultures. Making a complete memetic analysis of even a single religion is
beyond the scope of this paper, so by necessity the following discussion will be rather
Religions tend to consist of some basic core memes (in the case of Christianity the
belief in God and salvation through Christ) surrounded by symbiotic doctrinary memes
(how salvation can be reached, ethical systems, the cosmology) and then an immense
cloud of related memes (religious stories, doctrines, interpretations). These memes form
a symbiotic whole; the core memes need symbiotic memes to provide hooks and baits,
and the symbiotic memes reinforce each other and are given legitimacy by the core
3.3.1. Properties of the Meme
The Christianity meme complex has throughout history been transmitted in a multitude
of forms: as oral stories, through books and art, through example and through
upbringing. Due to its complexity the transmission takes time and is closely linked to
cultural understanding. This either requires a relatively concentrated effort to transmit
the complex (mission) or to spread it by cultural diffusion and imitation (upbringing). A
frequent diffusion situation is when a child is brought up in a Christian home. The
Christian meme complex is presented as the truth about how the world functions.
Variants of the meme have increased their fitness by encouraging a high rate of
reproduction and cultural transmission (Lynch 1996).
Most major religions rely on active transmission: one or more hosts actively supports the spread of the meme, often in an interactive and deliberate way. Efficient methods for mission have co-evolved with the religion and the situation; the best missionaries gained the most converts, among which were the next generation of missionaries (and missionary teachers) who would learn and spread some of their best methods.
Classically, Christianity have used the bait of salvation (freedom from fear, personal happiness and prosperity, spiritual fulfilment, eternal life or union with God have all been promoted at various time) combined with the threat of damnation to promote interest and infection. This is however just the explicit bait, it appears likely that many Christian movements have been spread by implicit factors such as a sense of belonging, social conformity and a consistent world-view. It is worth noting that the baits and threats are mostly based on the symbiotic memes and not the core memes of the complex, which means their relative prevalence can change to fit the situation (for example the ratio of hellfire threats to salvation baits used in sermons) or they can evolve while leaving the core memes unchanged.
Religions are often better than other meme complexes (such as science) at explaining how the world works on an emotional level. They provide answers to existential questions that are emotionally appealing, creating a satisfying world model (which then becomes intellectually satisfying regardless of its consistency due to cognitive dissonance). Because religions seldom try to empirically prove themselves they cannot be disproved, which further aids their stability. A religion can spread regardless of the truth or falsity of its claims.
The Christianity meme contains an entire world-view, and seeks to cause an accommodation in the schemata of the infected host; no other memes are allowed to influence high-level planning and behaviour ("Ye cannot serve God and Mammon", Matthew 24). This is achieved by rejecting such memes or impulses as 'against God's will', 'sinful' or 'satanic'.
Like all the other major world religions, Christianity has a strong mission. It both exists as an explicit missionary order and in the form of an implicit altruistic hook (see the section about hooks and motivation). Christians are urged to set good examples to others, which also increases the likelihood of transmission through social learning.
Critics of memetics complain about the danger of transforming everything into memes and memetics, feeling that it somehow reduces the importance of the human mind and places focus elsewhere. While some memeticists tend to go overboard with explaining everything in terms of memes, the same could be said about researchers in the fields of psychoanalysis, cognitive science or sociobiology. The importance lies in realising that psychology is full of more or less fit different explanatory perspectives, and memetics is just one of them. But by memetics you can often explain very complex cognitive structures and/or social psychological phenomenon (like Christianity) in a very general, no-nonsense way without having to entangle yourself in a web of unnecessarily complex theories.
Before our paper ends, we will inform you of our until now secret sub-goal with this paper. It is our intention that by now you, by reading this text, has been infected with one of the strongest memes on the planet: The Meta-Meme, e.g. the meme about the theory of memes. It is our sincere hope that you will tell your friends about this (yes, transmission and further infection) or maybe even let them read this paper. In either case, unless you carry a very strong vaccime (se appendix), we have made you a host. And you didn't even flinch. You should be lucky we are not after your money...
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