The Meme Matrix

We hear more and more about Web business ecosystems, the latest example being Paid Content, which pinged off a bit from ZDNet’s Dan Farber. “Business and technology ecosystems, like their biological counterparts, can be fragile,” Dan wrote. And as I observed earlier this week, even groovy Web ecoystems can be as lopsided as the relationship between whales and krill. Paid Content noted that “ecosystem” has less buzz than “the long tail,” the term Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson uses to describe how niche content can be effectively sold over the Web (at least by giant distributors, if not by niche producers themselves.) Both terms were featured in a new and thought-provoking section entitled “Meme Watch.”
Meme is itself a word with Web appeal. How it differs from “idea” is not entirely clear, though it does carry the connotation of modernity and a sense of active purpose. Think of a meme as an idea that is proactive. Whether we call them memes or ideas, concepts thrive on the Internet. Never has it been so easy to spread a thought, find like-minded individuals, and coordinate their activities. Not long ago I interviewed UC Berkeley political science professor Steven Weber for a story on his book about the Linux movement (“The Success of Open Source“). He said something that stuck in my head though I didn’t mention it then. As I recall it, the gist was that every revolution in communications is followed by a revolution, or revolutions, in politics and commerce. Take the Protestant Reformation. Syndicated columnist Terry Mattingly has described how, thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press, “Luther did more than nail his convictions to a church door — he published them.” Ever since, new media have been used to spread ideas. Of course they have also been abused to maintain orthodoxies. But powerful ideas — those with relevance to the times — seem to trump media control. The success of samizdat publishers during the Soviet era attests to that. So do good memes always triumph? Do popular ideas reflect the spirit of the times?
In general, the freer the flow of ideas, the more likely that sensible thinking will prevail. At least that appeals to the Darwinist and the democratic in me.
But my inner contrarian wonders whether we are rewriting the rules of human behavior. Ours is the most heavily mediated society that has ever existed. We go from cradle to grave in a cocoon of ideas. We are seldom alone with our own thoughts. Electronic devices whisper to us while we jog or drive. Much of what we hear or see includes messages from our sponsors. In fact the promise of Web publishing today is the better targeting of ads to address our unspoken, and perhaps even unrealized desires.
Myths may one day be written about a people who had so much and yet were always wanting. We may be living in a hall of memes, but then how would we ever know it?

Tom Abate
Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media