Life as an Extreme Sport

Critique – Media Virus and Memes

The idea of a meme is something that has always offended my sensibilities, without ever really knowing why. Obviously its most colloquial use, such as “LiveJournal-memes” is not accurate in the Dawkins-sense of the word, or the way that Dennis Rushkoff would like to see the word used. Memes are simply supposed to be one of three variants of a virus, be it a publicity stunt, a co-opted virus, or the self-generated virus. Rushkoff argues that in all instances, the virus has some sort of “sticky surface (akin to how a genetic virus works) that then allows the infection of something else into the cell or organism (with the organism in a meme being culture itself). Rushkoff uses words like datasphere to name this interconnected, technologically adept organism, and then goes on to use chaos theory to describe how it comes into being. And this is where he hits on what bothers me about memes to begin with: why bother? Yes, why bother. All Rushkoff is doing is watering down Apadurai’s concepts of ‘spheres, with the technosphere becoming the datasphere and using network theory repackaged to describe the chaotic yet “natural” behaviour of his datasphere. It’s simply reframing and rephrasing cultural dialogue and mimetic circulation in a trendy term and selling it to the masses — in fact, this selling to the masses is a key to Rushkoff’s conception of the origin of memes to begin with. In a nutshell, Rushkoff is arguing from a post-modernist view that looks at media through an ironic lens, and sees only the surface feedbacking to the surface, creating endless fractal loops that never go any deeper than the last feedback iteration.

The funny, or perhaps even ironic, thing, is that the LiveJournal-meme is probably the closest to what a meme should or would be. In this virtual space, someone posts a quiz or questions that their friends then read and repeat, with their friends reading and repeating, et cetera, as it spreads through-out this particular node of the network. For example, Person A posts a series of questions with answers, clearly fashioned as a “fill in the blank” style question. A recent one circulating was formatted something like this:
1. My LJ name is _________ because _________.
2. My friends list is called _________ because _________.
3. My user picture is _________ because _________.

Under these series of questions, Person A then repeats the question with the blanks filled in. Through years of schooling, we instantly recognize the form of the questions as fill in the blank, and proceed to do so. Persons B, C, and D all read Person A’s journal and repeat the questions and blanks in their journal, where Persons E-H see it (sometimes several times, as many people read similar journals). In relatively short fashion, the three questions have taken off like wildfire through the pocket of the virtual known as LiveJournal.

Using the terms of network theory (“node”, “network”) is important, because what we are seeing is not a meme but the creation of a non-human hub or connecting point in a complex social network. In general, these nodes are considered to be people, but in this case the hub is the series of questions itself. Instead of one person forming more and more connections until they trip some critical point and become a hub (a place of high connections), the questions themselves become a place of high connection. Graph theory often looks at this sort of connectivity in terms of static places, but in this case the hub is a non-corporeal concept.

If we speculate that there are multiple networks interfacing with one another — a wetworks or meatspace style set of nodes, hubs and connections, the connectivity of certain spaces, and a third, conceptual and non-corporeal network of ideas — we can stay within the confines of established interdisciplinary sciences to explain continual mimetic circulation without focusing on co-opting ideas that only weakly manage to portray the potential of the ideas.

In reality, where the idea of the virus applied to mimetic circulation comes into play ties back to the idea of sticky surfaces and syringes for injecting the viral particles. Instead of a virus allowing subversive memes to infect the culture, new symbols arise that allow other people to co-opt said symbol for their own purpose. The sticky surface of Michael Jackson’s latest legal problems allows people who have pet issues that can be related to the legal problems to use that as a starting point, a highly connected hub, for their own dissemination needs.