Tweets: New Vehicles for Meme Replication
Are you, like most newbies, asking yourself what’s up with Twitter? There’s no doubt that Twitter has captured everyone’s imagination, but what’s really happening on Twitter? And what’s really different about Twitter? The short answer is very fast replication of culture in the form of memes through a highly efficient vehicle called Tweets. Think Tweeme.
Richard Dawkins introduced the term meme in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976. A meme is an atomic unit of cultural information that is imitated and changed. Dawkins, a biologist, recognized that the evolution of a species takes place both across generations and within cultures. Within cultures, evolution takes place when memes, like genes, replicate. Dawkins writes that cultural evolution take place at a much faster time scale than genetic evolution. And three characteristics of a meme that affect its survival are its fecundity, or cultural richness, its copying fidelity and its longevity.
So what are some recognizable memes? Well, that depends on your culture. Gamers and hackers would recognize pwn. Pwn is thought to be derived from the word own and rhymes with poon. Gamers pwn, or own, their opponent when they’ve compromised their opponent’s system. Pwn is suspected to have been created through a typo because the letters p and o are adjacent on the querty keyboard. Pwn is a meme where imperfect copying fidelity lead to cultural evolution. Whereas in biology the template for replication is the gene itself, with memes, the template for replication is cultural understanding. Occurrences of a meme are its replicas.
Since it was introduced in 1976, meme has fulfilled its own promise and has become, yes, you guessed it, a meme in itself. A culture formed around memes, the word is used with a variety of senses and its definition has evolved from the few examples Dawkins provides. Most notably, Susan Blackmore, in Artificial, Self Replicating Meme Machines, writes about techno-memes, or temes. Blackmore, like Dawkins, claims that temes, like all replicators are selfish. By selfish Dawkins and Blackmore impute a behavior to temes, memes and genes that personifies the characteristics of survival in a competitive environment where survivial implies replication among a pool of competitors.
I’ll return to temes shortly, but first two more defintions: Pools, as in gene pool, would be the set of all genes available to a species. Vehicles are individual units within the species that serve as a mechanism for the survivual of genes and memes. Dawkins’ notable contribution to biology, some say the most significant since Darwin, is that humans are vehicles, or survival machines for genes. And genes are the atomic units of natural selection.
Blackmore’s temes do not seem well defined and a close examination reveals some fuzzy singularity-like thinking, but a careful examination of memes on Twitter will lead us to understand Tweemes and why Tweets are highly efficient vehicles for cultural replication. Blackmore’s temes are, or are becoming, self replicating. Although we can readily accept that digital technologies are highly efficient for copying and have high copying fidelity, self replication implies more than copying. There’s no evidence that memes change themselves and here we need to separate technology from culture. And it’s essential to remember that Dawkins admittedly imputes behavior to genes and memes as a rhetorical trick to best communicate survival under competition.
Humans change memes, like the typo that created pwn, and there’s no evidence that technology does so of its own accord. Singularity theories are valid in that under induction we are unwise to exclude possibilities, but various technologies lumped under artificial intelligence operate according to design. As an example of design constraints that would limit the capabilities proposed by Blackmore, follow the recent email thread here, by Tim Berners-Lee on design and use in the Semantic Web. Finally the degenerate case of design by permutation does not imply that technology self-replicates and without intelligence implies a combinatoric explosion.
So if humanity is a gene pool and the internet is a meme pool, then Twitter is a meme pool with special characteristics that accelerate cultural evolution. Tweets are vehicles that transmit embedded memes that we can call Tweemes. Let’s compare these characteristics with Dawkins’ fecundity, copying fidelity and longevity: Tweets are transmitted on mobile devices. That means Crackberry addiction is way up and there’s no time at all before followers get your interrupt signal and their Pavlovian response triggers an immediate check for undirected messages. @replies allow followers to copy or mutate a Tweeme, but as above there’s no self-replication, only replication by your followers’ design. Think semi-intelligent design, although that is clearly giving the benefit of the doubt in most cases. @replies for all allows one to see the @replies of one’s followers to Twits who you don’t even follow thereby accelerating the transmission and reflection of Tweemes across the cultural equivalent of evolution across three generations within just minutes. This means that surviving Tweemes are very selfish, given an environment that tends towards very low longevity given the attention span of most Twits.
Even newbs can have fun with Tweemes by using Twemes. Note that Tweemes differ from Twemes. Twemes use the hash tag (#) convention that allows you to search Twitter so you can narrow your search for Tweemes. Search a bit, mutate a few Tweemes, turn off your @replies only setting and then follow any Twit you don’t know and whose @reply shows up in your feed. There’s nothing geekier n00bies could do to celebrate Darwin’s 200th birthday!
Ok noob, now you know what’s up with Twitter. Twitter’s a meme pool that accelerates cultural evolution. Tweets are highly efficient vehicles for transmission of cultural information. And Tweemes are very selfish memes that survive on n00bs.