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27 Million Views and Counting: Could There Be a Science of Memitics?

ckosarek's picture

The Andy Warhol of Marilyn Monroe. “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” by Journey. Campbell’s Soup. We all know what “LOL” stands for, and we can recite the basic plot of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale or two. And even if we don’t know that the band is Journey and the song is called “Don’t Stop Believin’ ”, chances are we can sing along to the chorus. Richard Dawkins, cited in Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, has identified these known cultural symbols are “memes,” or the ‘genetic’ units by which culture is carried between individuals, populations, and generations. Memes, according to Dawkins, are the ways in which culture spreads both vertically and horizontally across time.

In his examination of Dawkin’s work, Dennett asks the question of whether there could be a “science of memitics” (Dennett 352) and concludes (using a direct quote from Dawkins himself) that “[t]he copying process [of memes] is probably much less precise than in the case of genes . . . [m]emes may partially blend with each other in a way that genes do not” (361). So no, Dennett says, there can’t be a science of memetics because we have no real way of determining which memes will be passed on and which “memes” will be as forgotten as the hairstyles of the 1980s.

But Dennett and Dawkins are forgetting a key aspect of genetics that could be applied to memitics. In the 19th century before Mendelian genetics arose, scientists held to an idea of “genetic blending.” According to this theory, if a red flower were pollinated with a white flower, the resulting flowers would be pink. Of course, what Mendel showed what that the resulting flowers are usually either white or red, depending on which color is genetically dominant. But this didn’t completely solve the problem – with some species of flowers there were no pink buds, but with others, such as the Pink Snapdragon, this intermediate coloring clearly occurred. Why? We now understand this phenomenon as “incomplete dominance”, in which one trait is not completely dominant over another, thus causing an intermediate phenotypic expression. When applied to memitics, the idea that memes must be copied with no “partial blending” becomes less important. Genes replicate with what looks like phenotypic blending, and genetics relies on probabilities to predict likely outcomes – why couldn’t memitics, in theory, also use probabilities to predict whether an Internet video will go viral?

According to this Huffington Post article, in 2010, YouTube users uploaded 35 hours of video/minute, which adds up to “over 13 million hours of video for the entire year.” Further, at the end of every year, YouTube releases the “YouTube Rewind,” cataloguing the “most watched videos of the year”, the “most watched music videos” of the year, and the “fastest rising search terms” of the year on the website’s search bar. Using YouTube’s top ten videos of 2010 as examples of cultural memes (perhaps in not as great of a sense as Dawkins meant, but for the purposes of this paper, sizeable enough), I am going to attempt to evaluate Dennett’s claim that a science of memitics cannot exist. I will evaluate the videos for common qualities, then will attempt to synthesize the qualities to draw some conclusions about what kind of aspects will likely cause a video to go viral – or, perhaps, go memitic.

The videos

10. #10 - Ken Block's Gymkhana THREE, Part 2; Ultimate Playground; l'Autodrome, France

For 7:42, viewers watch Ken Block race between traffic cones, drift around figure-eights, and even do doughnuts around a man on a Segway in a small high-performance racecar. At the time of this paper, the video has 27, 681, 383 hits with 23, 235 comments. The video’s conceit lies in its seeming impossibility – how did Ken make that turn? How did he not hit that cone when he’s going so fast? The film is fast, the clips of the inside of the car and its driver choppy and suspenseful, the audio of screeching tires and a roaring motor shifting through gears precisely yet quickly, the stunts themselves probably out-of-reach for the typical driver – all of this draws the viewer into the video. And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that DC Shoe Company made and promoted this

Possible memitic qualities: suspense, danger, sense of impossibility, professional promotion, this being “part 2” of a series (naturally, one would watch part one and want to go to part 2)

9.  Jimmy Surprises Beiber Fan

Running for 4:38, this video takes viewers through the comedic emotional trials of a Justin Beiber-deprived three-year-old girl. The video has 25, 465, 763 views with 72, 613 comments. It’s easy to identify why this video might be attractive: Cody, the little Beiber fan, has impeccable comedic timing and Justin Beiber himself actually surprises Cody near the end of the video, at which point she comes out with more great one-liners. The comedy is offensive to virtually none and understood by anyone who’s opened an issue of People Magazine within the last year. At three years old, Cody has done what few comedians are able to do: make people laugh without making them feel bad about laughing. Further, the clip is posted by Jimmy Kimmel Live, which probably ensured at least some base number of views from already established fans of Jimmy Kimmel Live who would have watched the clips the show posted anyway.

Possible memitic qualities: comedy, celebrity appearance, professional promotion, builds upon an already-established meme


Werewolves, vampires – apparently this is what society wants in a movie. And for 1:33, viewers get a taste of the latest installment of the Twilight “saga”, based on a book series by Stephenie Meyer. Posted by the film’s promotion team and coming after two extremely successful predecessors, it’s no wonder that Twilight fans were eager to get a glimpse of what was coming next – 18, 720, 609 times. The video has 36, 708 comments and creates a miniature plotline in which we learn of the difficult romantic choice the main character must make.

Possible memitic qualities: suspense, drama, professional promotion, builds upon an already-established meme, airtime on network television

7. OK Go - This Too Shall Pass - Rube Goldberg Machine version - Official

With 25, 019, 799 views and 29, 941 this mazelike feat was performed with the help of insurance giant, State Farm. The 3:54 video to OK Go’s song, “This Too Shall Pass,” documents a pattern of actions and reactions, eventually ending in the members of the band being shot with pain guns. While devoid of suspense, the conceit of the video lies in its meticulous setup – the video represents the novel, weird, and interesting and ends comically with a bunch of guys in funny outfits getting squirted with paint. Since this video is so unique, though, it is difficult to find memitic qualities that align with the other videos. This video was promoted on YouTube by the band – not their record label – and is captivating in its weirdness, not its suspense or comedy. However, it did air on network television (MTV, Fuse, etc.).

Possible memitic qualities: comedy (?), novelty, airtime on network television

6. Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Double Rainbow 1-8-10

Not professionally promoted – just a guy, his camera, and unreal awe for nature. And the result is hilarious. For 3:30, 25, 630, 783 viewers have gotten to hear the cameraman’s overenthusiastic reaction to seeing a “double rainbow.” There are 110, 874 comments on the video, with some viewers, too, finding the majesty in nature, but with other asking what the cameraman is on (and can they have some?). Hands down, this video is popular because it’s hilarious. This guy’s reaction is out there and so unexpected and over-the-top that it over twenty five million people watched.

Possible memitic qualities: comedy, novelty

5. Old Spice | The Man Your Man Could Smell Like

00:33 is all it takes for this Old Spice commercial to get viewers to both laugh and question the inadequacy of their romantic partners. With 29, 996, 888 views and 35, 596 comments, this video captivates viewers by having (at least) eight jokes, one after the other. As with some of the other videos on this YouTube Rewind, this video was professionally promoted by OldSpice and, unlike most of the other videos, aired also on network television.

Possible memitic qualities: airtime on network television, comedy, professional promotion

4. Annoying Orange Wazzup

Running 1:13, this video is another installment to the webseries “Annoying Orange”, which (as stated by the blurb under the video on YouTube), is a “spoof off of old Budweiser commercials.” The video has 32, 952, 754 views and 62, 722 comments at the time of this writing. The video relies heavily on puns and could be said to be “silly” instead of “witty” (the humor is presented not intelligently, but rather in a way that is supposed to get the audience to laugh at its sheer frivolity).

Possible memitic qualities: builds upon an already-established meme, comedy

3. Greyson Chance Singing Paparazzi

Like the Ken Block video, this video relies on the viewer’s awe of a feat he cannot imagine himself completing. Running 3:38, the video (shot by Greyson’s father) documents 13-year-old Greyson Chance playing his rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” at his middle school talent show. Greyson has no formal vocal training under his belt and has a few years of piano lessons, yet remains on-key and arranged the composition himself. The video has 37, 876, 896 views with 186,725 comments, and has attracted attention from Lady Gaga herself. Could you do that? Probably not.

Possible memitic qualities: sense of impossibility, building upon an already established meme

2. TIK TOK KESHA Parody: Glitter Puke - Key of Awe$ome #13

Running 2:42, this video parodies the “Tik Tok” video released by pop singer, Ke$ha, in 2009. As with all parodies, this video’s conceit lies in its humorous twisting of an already established cultural meme. The video has 67, 322, 835 views and 92, 990 comments, and is part of a web series called “Key of Awesome,” which has 568 videos on YouTube.

Possible memitic qualities: building upon an already established meme, comedy

1. Auto-Tune the news: BED INTRUDER SONG!!! (now on iTunes)

With 73, 481, 362 views and 181, 411 comments, this 2:08 video was the most frequently watched video on YouTube in 2010. It parodies a news report with “interviewees” who sing about the crime in their neighborhood to an R&B background beat. Surprisingly, this video was not professionally promoted and is not part of a large group of web videos (the user who posted the video has posted only 56 videos). It could be said to build upon the culturally established meme of a news report, but it doesn’t build upon that meme in the way the Ke$ha parody or the Greyson Chance cover did.

Possible memitic qualities: comedy, building upon an established meme (?)


70% of the videos on the YouTube Rewind for 2010 featured comedy of some sort (parody, slapstick, etc.). 60% built upon an already established meme, 40% were professionally promoted, 30% were aired on network television, 20% featured a sense of impossibility for the viewer, and 20% were suspenseful. The amount of comments was not strongly correlated with the frequency of views on the videos. Two of the videos were “home” movies (though one additional one featured a home video), one was taken from a nighttime talk show, one video was a music video (excluding the Ke$ha parody), one was a movie trailer, one was a commercial, and the remaining four videos were part of a webseries.

So, what could this mean?

The shared qualities of these videos indicate that certain qualities may increase the probability that a video will become popular. In the same way that we can predict genetic dominance when two plants are crossed, a video that features, for example, comedy crossed with the fact that it is part of a webseries crossed with an already established meme may produce a video with memitic potential. If we were to apply this to Mendelian genetics, we could say that a video that has homozygous “funny” qualities crossed with the homozygous quality of “building on an already-established meme” would produce a heterozygous video with the potential to be popular. Further, we can see cases of incomplete dominance (like we do with the Pink Snapdragon) in the case that a video would feature, for example, both suspense and comedy (which is a combination that, in the 2010 most frequently viewed list, does not appear and can therefore be assumed to be rare but that definitely does occur, especially in the case of romantic comedy trailers).

In short, the qualities of a video can help predict whether that video has a chance of going viral (or memetic). I chose to work with YouTube videos because they represent what is popular in the Internet culture, but I do admit that if we are to properly answer Dennett’s question about whether a science of memitics could exist, a probability analysis would have to be carried out on a much larger scale and perhaps fewer “predictive” qualities would surface. Further, though I did find qualities that unite these popular videos, it is important to remember that correlation does not prove causation, and that it may just be coincidental that 70% of these videos are funny and popular (there are certainly videos that are funny and unpopular). However, I do claim that being funny may increase the likelihood that a video will become popular and potentially memitic.

As it stands with the evidence I’ve gathered from these videos, it seems like certain qualities could be indicative of potential memiticism, and that we could possibly calculate some probability of whether or not something will become memitic based upon how many or to how intense of a degree that the cultural thing in question has qualities found in already successful memes. 


"Darwin's Dangerous Idea", Dennett






Paul Grobstein's picture

accounting for success of memes/genes?

 Intriguing, both for thinking about a "science of mimitics" and for what that says about a "science of genetics."  Yes, there isn't in principle any reason why "blending" couldn't be an aspect of either alone or of both together.  That though is a description of "allowable possbilities," ie of things that can be explored rather than of what makes something successful.  Its the latter issue that seems to be focused on here re a "science of mimitics."  And that in turn raises the question of whether it is or is not possible to say what makes something successful either in the case of genetics or mimitics.  Stephen Jay Gould pointed out for the former the problem of "just so stories," of accounting after the fact for the the successes of particular genetic characteristics.  His point was that one can always come up with a "story," but one rarely/never has a way to test it.  Maybe the same holds for memes?  And so exactly why something is successful isn't in general an answerable question either in the realm of memes or genes?