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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Second Web Paper
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A-meme-ica Online:
How Memes Have Shaped the Blogosphere

Lauren Friedman

The science of memetics – the scientific and systematic study of memes and their propagation – is not quite considered a science yet. People will concede that memes are a key factor in cultural evolution, but they are too difficult to track, too unpredictable to study closely. Unless we "someday discover a striking identity between brain structures storing the same information, allowing us to identify memes syntactically" (Dennett 354), it would seem that there is little hope for a science of memetics. How can we explore and apply memetics to culture if we cannot isolate and investigate the memes themselves, and their behaviors and effects?

While memes' motion and influence through culture at large is perhaps impossible to analyze using a precise methodology, memes' virus-like spread on the internet – most notably throughout the so-called "blogosphere" – is easier to follow. Consequently, it is also much easier to highlight how memes have directed the evolution of the "blogosphere," and, indeed, of blogging and internet itself. Richard Dawkins, who is credited with coining the term "meme," defines it as:

...a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation... Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation (Dennett 344-5).
Since the blogosphere can be defined as the internet space populated by weblogs, memes travel through it not from brain to brain, but from page to page, leaving a trail that can be monitored and analyzed.

Memes have been an important part of the blogging world since at least 2001, when "Best Meme" first appeared as a category in The Bloggies, the annual Oscars of weblogging. The winner in the "Best Meme" category that year was "A Day Without Weblogs," which suggested that each December 1st, people use their weblogs to link to information and resources about AIDS, in memory of those who had died. "A Day Without Weblogs" had in fact begun with only fifty blogs in 1999, but by 2001, over 1,000 webloggers participated (Link and Think, 2003). The success of "A Day Without Weblogs" was one of the first demonstrations of the power and reach of the blogging community. The success of the project helped bring crucial attention to a serious issue, and mobilized many casual web surfers to donate time and money to the cause. Thus, the "Day Without Weblogs" meme was key in the evolution of the blogosphere into a politically active and powerful community. Now the blogosphere is quite a political force to be reckoned with, and this fact came under the national spotlight with Howard Dean's now-failed campaign, which was given a much-needed boost from the blogging community.

Often internet memes are more playful, but still just as politically contentious. For example, the idea of a "Googlebomb" became very popular in the blogosphere. Googlebombs take advantage of Google's PageRank technology, which organizes pages not just by their content, but by how people link to them. Webloggers are perhaps the most prolific linkers on the internet, often posting multiple links in one day. Once they realized the power this gave them, they decided to see if they could harness it.

In October 2003, weblogger George Johnston made a post in which he linked to George W. Bush's official biography on the White House website using "miserable failure" as the text of the link. He encouraged others with similar views to do the same (Hansell 1). By December 2003, Bush's biography had become the number one search result on Google for the keywords "miserable failure," even though those words appear nowhere on the page itself (Mikkelson 1). Since that Googlebomb, the Googlebomb meme has spread even more rapidly, with people in the farthest reaches of the blogosphere trying to start new ones every day.

The power of webloggers to shape politics and the face of the internet is in large part due to memes and how rapidly and effectively they are carried throughout the blogosphere. Still, there are those who say that memes' popularity amongst webloggers has simply gone too far. As Bladur Bjarnason, himself a weblogger, writes: "The meme-plague is the only thing which can destroy the weblogging revolution, murder it in its tracks." Dennett expresses reservations about memes also, and the unsettling robot-like culture their existence seems to imply:

I am not initially attracted by the idea of my brain as a sort of dungheap in which the larvae of other people's ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational diaspora. It does seem to rob my mind of its importance as both author and critic. Who's in charge, according to this vision – we or our memes? (346).
If the fear of memes stamping out the possibility of originality and creativity is very real in the world at large, then it is perhaps an even greater fear in the blogosphere, where memes travel and are replicated much faster than they ever could if they were not on the internet.

Unlike in the real world, blogging memes are easily tracked with a number of different tools. Blogdex Top 50, a project of the MIT Media Lab, offers a list of the fifty most popular topics in the blogosphere that updates in realtime. Daypop Top 40 is a list of the forty most popular pages being linked to by webloggers at any particular time, with indications of which links are growing in popularity and which are declining. BlogPulse, made by Intelliseek, "regularly mines thousands of blogs for references to people, places, and events" (Asaravala 1). Research at Hewlett-Packard Labs on the infectious spread of information in the blogosphere has lead to the development of the Blog Epidemic Analyzer, which is "a Java program that reveals the implicit and inferred links between blogs in an interactive, visual form" (2). The Hewlett-Packard researchers have created graphical representations of the flow of information in the blogosphere that could prove useful in understanding memetics outside the internet. For example, the Blog Epidemic Analyzer and its findings might help "sociologists who are interested in learning how ideas grow from isolated topics into full-blown epidemics that 'infect' large populations" (1).

As we get closer to understanding how memes work in the blogosphere, it is still unclear whether or not they exhibit similar, if slower, behavior in the real world. Perhaps the viral nature of blogging memes should serve as a warning to people even outside the blogosphere:

As the popularity of weblogging increases, the number of meme-victims will rise and the Blogdex top fifty will not only describe the fifty most popular subjects among webloggers... It will describe the only subjects... And the weblogging meme will eat its own (Bjarnason 2).

If memes are capable of destroying weblogging itself, are they also capable of destroying culture? Memes are key in the evolution of culture, since the spread of ideas is necessary for the improvement of ideas. But if memes propagate themselves uncontrollably, and our thoughts are more often memes than original creations, culture will cease to advance and will only self-replicate. This moment in time, should it ever occur, would mark not another step in cultural evolution, but its perhaps inevitable end.

Works Cited

Asaravala, Amit. "Warning: Blogs Can Be Infectious." Wired News, March 2003. <,1284,62537,00.html 3/18/04 >

Bjarnason, Baldur. "Death of the Blogger." Gimlé, February 2003. < 3/19/04 >

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Touchstone, 1995.

Hansell, Saul. "Foes of Bush Enlist Google to Make Point." The New York Times, December 8, 2003. The New York Times Company, 2003.

Link and Think. World AIDS Day, 2003.

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