I’m a memeticist. I’ve been researching memes for ten years.

I don’t mean in the sense that you “research memes” on Faceblok during your bathroom break. I’ve read all the books (practically dozens!). When I got into memetics, it was largely considered pseudoscience, with no way of quantifying or falsifying its claims.

Despite the handful of researchers doing good work in universities, when I was in college it was considered to be a career-killing subject. Fortunately, I wasn’t in college for long, and I had plenty of time to study once I retreated to the woods.

While I was off the grid, two seemingly contradictory things happened to memetics.

Big Data got its squirrely paws on our digital nuts, which finally gave researchers a way to measure the spread of ideas. People couldn’t wait to share their thoughts with every ex-boyfriend and intel analyst in the world. Goldmine.

Simultaneously, the word “meme” metamorphosed to mean “a picture with words on it, maybe worth sharing”.

It wasn’t just that some new idea came along and claimed “meme”. We already had a name for these – “image macros” – and while it wasn’t elegant, it sufficed. “Meme” ate “image macro”. It invaded that thoughtspace territory, and not only did it conquer, it chose this place to build its palace.

“Meme” now lives squarely in the “picture with words” place, and anyone who wants to write about memetics has to coax the reader away from lolcatz and back to the neglected homeland of “meme”.

Some enjoy this journey, but most do it grudgingly. They kidnap you, reader, put a black bag over your head and drag you to the middle of nowhere and gaslight you: “This is the real Land of Meme! Your memories are a lie! There are no glorious ever-spouting fountains of amusing image macros, only dusty theories and a colossal statue of Richard Dawkins. It has always been this way!”

They’re sore cuz their cool cyberpunk job title got polluted by internet culture (as are the inventors of the internet, I’m sure). They refuse to accept that the nomenclature has changed, that their “meme” meme has evolved. There are no fancy Gooble positions for “memeticists”. Just the infinitely less cool “data scientists”.

This was the landscape I saw upon descending the mountain: everybody is researching memes every day, and yet nobody is doing memetics .

The scientists refuse to study the billions of “image macros” that stole their lunch money.

The normal folks operate a gigantic meme-sorting economy, seemingly for no reason. (Although you and I know that we’re being hacked through cognitive exploits to do free labor for the behavior-modification empires, most people apparently look at memes because they’re “fun”.)

I puzzled on this for years. Every time someone shoved their phone in my face and said “check this out”, I shut my eyes and demanded that they explain it to me. Describe the picture, read the words, translate it into a joke. I wanted to see how the memes would mutate when re-encoded.

(Also, I wanted to use my friends as a buffer against this toxic mind-slime. This may have been a good choice, as they now seem infected with various flavors of tribalist rage. On the other hand, perhaps I could have protected them, using my superior cynicism and arrogance. Oh well. Can’t win every time.)

One night, deep in the pints, I tried looking at the problem from the other direction entirely. What if these are the memes? What if “meme” drifted meanings because an image macro is actually the most pure form of a meme ?

Something about the picture-with-words format seems to be the atomic unit of memetics. This is a thing we didn’t know in the nineties and noughties. If we take that as a given, as a fact of the landscape, what sort of memetics would we build?

OBSERVATION: A meme is a picture with words on it that might be worth sharing.

OBSERVATION: Humans seem to learn concepts through our bodies (in physical, embodied metaphors).

OBSERVATION: Humans also seem to learn concepts through our minds by exploring a combinatorial set of concepts arranged in a multi-dimenstional semantic space. This is what I call “thought-space”. More on that soon.

OBSERVATION: Pictures are processed as a gestalt, an all-at-once knowing, while language is processed in a temporally-bound order of concepts. Pictures activate our concrete, embodied knowledge. Language works on our thought-space associations.

(See Bryson, Embodiment vs. Memetics, 2008 and Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, 1980. )

Why is a meme a picture with words on it?

The picture jogs your brain into a certain state. A picture of a cat triggers assocations with all cats you’ve ever met, imaginary cats from cartoons, every other cat meme you’ve seen. Your brain lights up. Your mirror neurons do their best to think like a cat, because your brain evolved to be concerned with the intentions of the critters around you. In an instant, you’re a lolcat simulator.

Only then do the words shuffle in, guiding your brain on a journey through thought-space. This is an imaginary place with a real topology: research shows humans consistently locate concepts like “cat” and “dog” closer than than pairings like “cat” and “year”. It’s an n -dimensional space, where n is the number of concepts in your head. If you only know “cat” and “dog”, then any new concept will be located on a line somewhere between those poles. What, a “year”? Is that more like a cat, or more like a dog? Once you have a third concept, you have two dimensions to compare to. “Pancake”? Well, it’s clearly more like a dog than a cat. But is it more like a year than a dog? And so on.

(High-dimensional spaces are fucked up to think about, but since they’re part of your brain you can kind of feel them instead. Try expanding from cat-dog-year-pancake, and see if you can sense the staggering amount of dimensions inside you.)

Back to the meme: each word drags your mind in a certain direction from the initial concept of “cat”. It’s like a hiking path, with arrows pointing the way. You travel through thought-space in a certain direction for a certain distance. You traverse a vector.

When you arrive at the end of this journey, your brain gets a hit of juice: you’ve discovered something. You’ve made a new connection. It’s a micro-dose of insight porn.

There’s a reason for this curiosity: as declawed, bipedal skin-monkeys, we rely on our insights to survive. Learning that the cat wants the cheezburger, or the möth the lämp, doesn’t really give you an evolutionary advantage. But it hot-wires that ancient battery, and you get the juice.

If the meme is especially funny, or practical, or outrageous, you’ll share it. That’s what we’ve always done with good memes. Only now we’ve got perfect replication machines in our pockets, and tools for quick and dirty memetic engineering, and channels to spread our memes to incredible amounts of people. An ancient, slumbering beast stirs.

A meme is a vector in thoughtspace.

It can be accomplished through any medium: a gesture, a sound, a letter, a photo. These tiny, composable units chain together into massive organisms, memeplexes and egregores, beings with enough power and agency to control millions of humans. But in the end, they’re all just programming instructions for human minds: go here, do this, say that. Easy little vectors that we can mimic, plugged together with cue-action-reward loops and maladapted incentives.

They’re not impossible to understand. They’re memes, at all levels, and we know them now. The image boards and subreddits and group chats: these are our Galápagos. The memetic explosion is now. Get out and catch you some specimens, but remember: we’re the researchers, not the experiment. Don’t get played by your own petri dish.

Be a memeticist. Gaze into the abyss. But wear mirrorshades.

Thanks for reading,

– Max


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