Archive for the 'memes' Category
Andy Serwer, Fortune‘s Managing Editor, does not like the word â€œmeme.â€ And David Kirkpatrick, the conference organizer, complained of people calling to ask what this â€œi-Mimiâ€ conference was about. (Or maybe that was â€œI-Me-Me,â€ the conference for narcissists.) Next year’s conference is already scheduled for July 2008 in Half-Moon Bay, but there’s a good chance Fortune will be resurrecting the name “Brainstorm.”
I love the word “meme.” Richard Dawkins coined it in The Selfish Gene in 1976, and it’s gotten around some since then. It spawned an entire academic discipline, memetics. The word is popular with bloggers, who can find endless subject material in the blog memes replicating across the Internet. TechMeme, formerly known as Memeorandum, exists to collect memes. Memes have given their name to software that analyzes DNA sequences. David Brin invented a dimension called E-space, populated by “meme organisms,” in his book Heaven’s Reach.
The word also provided the conference’s great (albeit unintended) comic moment. Andy Serwer asked Richard Dawkins what a meme was, and that professional atheist exclaimed “Oh, God.”
It’s possible, however, that “iMeme” really is not the best name for a conference whose subtitle is â€œThe Thinkers of Tech.â€
It takes more than thinking to make a meme. A meme is not just an idea, however brilliant. It is, to borrow Seth Godin’s term, an “ideavirus.” A meme is a unit of imitation. Its root is mimesis, the Greek word for “imitation.” Plato and Aristotle both talk a lot about mimesis in reference to theater. Art imitates life: that’s mimesis. Actors represent the characters in plays: that’s mimesis. Impressionable young people may go home from the theater and model their behavior on Orestes or Oedipus: that’s mimesis, too.
A meme is not precisely a trend or a fad, but a style that gets copied or an activity that becomes popular is certainly a meme, or has come into existence because of a meme. Memes may be fast-spreading but short-lived, like the Four Things blog meme. They may spread themselves by force and endure for centuries, like Islam and Christianity. Anything that “everybody is doing” is a meme.
There were certainly plenty of memes present at the conference:
- Social Networking
- Virtual Presence
- Going Green
- The Ad-Sponsored Business Model
But there were also a lot of panels and presentations focused on the future, on ideas that the speakers either hoped or feared would replicate memetically. And some discussing what might be described as dying memes, like the music industry and non-VOIP telecoms. Lisa Hook of SunRocket joked that she and the other telecoms providers (Telstra, Avaya, QUALCOMM) constituted “The dinosaur panel.”
The program described the MyMeme segments as “a short talk on what matters.” Catherine Cook, Geordie Rose, Vineet Nayar, John Chambers, Esther Dyson, and the others who spent 5-15 minutes sharing their visions are all innovators. Almost by definition, the ideas and projects that excite them most have not yet replicated across the “meme pool” of human consciousness.
Perhaps more importantly, memes, unlike people, lack consciousness and volition. They propagate whether or not they are good for the people who believe and embody them. Along with the social networking meme, for instance, comes an abandonment-of-privacy meme which has already gotten many people in trouble when their current or prospective employers looked at their MySpace pages and which opens up a massive potential for witch-hunts.
It’s good to consider the memes, the things that have spread like wildfire, the behaviors everyone in the world engages in. And it’s important to think about the consequences of that replication. But it’s also important to look at the new ideas, the shifting definitions, and the choices we still have regardless of how popular a destructive meme becomes. We need to hear from the people who aren’t jumping on the bandwagon and those who have alternative routes to offer.
It may be that renaming the conference “Brainstorm” will give the people who say things like “You can’t build a global economy on advertising” and “Not everyone who goes online wants to buy or sell something” more of an opportunity to be heard.
Anyway, the “i” in “iMeme” is redundant. Memes, like genes, are all about information.