A Taxonomy of Memes
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In this post I'm going to share some thoughts I've had on memes, in the sense of memetics as coined by Dawkins. I've never read anything by Dawkins . Instead I've learned what I know of the subject appropriately through memesis. Ingesting ideas here and there from disparate sources.
What is a meme? A meme is just an idea. Why do we need another word for idea? When we call an idea a meme we're emphasizing that we're not principally interested in whether the idea is true or useful but why the idea is generally believed. Or if not believed, at least why people are generally aware of it. What causes people to spread the idea? What causes people to remember and repeat it? Ironically Dawkin's coinage has been outcompeted in the internet's ecology of memes by images with text which is what is most often is referred to as a meme.
Why is the concept of memes memetic? There's sort of a debate angle. If one can show the proponents of beliefs they disagree with have their beliefs not because they carefully surveyed the available evidence and decided the preponderance of evidence supports the position but for some frivolous reason such as: it's what their friends believe, or they were indoctrinated in the belief from a young age, or they read some bullshit online or their job depends on it, then one can dismiss the fact that this person has this belief as evidence in the belief. This is not an idea original to the 21st century:
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
In my opinion due to the change in ways we form and spread beliefs these considerations are increasingly relevant. As we've transitioned from learning mostly from our parents and small groups to learning more from books and periodicals to organized and homogeneous schooling and now mostly the internet I worry that the information that is selected for and we differentially hear about has less and less to do with that's true and useful. I'm not sure what to do about this at either an individual and societal level. And it's possible it's not even a real problem. I think the internet has elevated quite a few areas of human knowledge. To give two trivial examples I think people are a lot better at Magic the Gathering and Rubik's cubing collectively because of the internet. It's hard to tease apart the effects of "one person can make a deck or algorithm discovery and show it to everyone in the world" and "there are just more people trying hard to be good". To give a negative example, top chess players are a lot better in 2021 than 1990 but I think this is mostly to do with chess engines and has little to do with the internet.
I want to state four dimensions of meme space, give a loose description of the 16 resulting categories and some examples. My dimensions are:
- True/False. This is not a true binary. In particular a lot of statements are neither true or false. For instance statements of the form "You should do X". A lot of such statements are grounded in an implicit claim like "The likely result of X is Y" which can be true or false. There's also ways a statement can be mostly true or false by being some type of generalization.
- Useful/Harmful to the believer. An idea does not have to be true to be useful. For instance a belief in heaven can make is easier to accept death. And a true idea can be harmful. Insert any doomer meme. It's also worth pointing out that most beliefs have no significant effect on their believer. We're always picking up tid bits and trivia, watching new shows and stuff. For the most part it doesn't change us.
- Useful/Harmful to the group. Society is organized into many hierarchies and an idea can have different effects at each of them. Nationalism can be good for a country but bad for the world. Wanting to be good at your job can be good for your company but bad for society if you work for Coca-cola. Caring about work life balance can be good for your family but bad for your company. etc. Each of my examples may only make sense with respect to one fixed group.
- Virulent/Inert . This property is relative to a group. Some technical knowledge may be highly virulent in the proper community of experts but have no effect on the median person. Some ideas are highly virulent for a time and then outcompeted by some adjacent idea which takes up the mind space formerly occupied by the original idea.
Below are the categories and examples I was able to shoehorn into the 16 combinations. Let me know if you disagree with anything I've categorized or you have better examples. Note it's hard to give examples for a lot of categories. There are limits on how "inert" an idea I can give since I have to be aware of it to list it. For instance I originally put Vim instead of Emacs in the chart since it feels relatively esoteric but in turns out ~15% of developers use it. I kind of don't think Emacs is more useful but it's certainly more inert at <4%. Anything I list as viral and false will be sort of a matter of controversy. I think I've vaguely sidestepped it by listing things that aren't really so viral anymore. The trend of Americans who identify as religious is really something. I don't think Christianity is particularly viral in 2021 but it certainly was for many centuries and may be again.
 Okay I've read some tweets of his (you know which ones) and I read the God Delusion in High School because Dawkins was listed under the category of nature authors which I had to read a book from for a literature class. But nothing by him about memes.
 Let me know if you have a really good word which means the opposite of Virulent. I toyed with benign but that more means not harmful. Probably the phrase "low transmissibility" is best but I wanted one word. I chose inert because it emphasizes that the idea isn't going to get it's host to go out and tell everyone.