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What the heck is a meme anyway?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

In recent weeks, I've been accused of something no one has even accused me of before: creating a meme. The charge seems weak to me, though, based on my understanding of "meme." But let's review.

On 26 February 2009, I wrote a blog for CMS Watch called "A Reality Checklist for Vendors" in which I enumerated 15 things that a CMS software vendor (but really, any software vendor) needs to do these days in order to stay relevant. Things like posting a free downloadable eval version of your software on your company web site; eating your own dogfood (the vendor should use its own software to create its website); and having one pricesheet for all customers (we don't quote ten different prices to ten different customers). Simple things, basic sanity-check items. For the full list, go here.

Not long thereafter, on 17 March, Michael Marth wrote a blog at dev.day.com ("Introducing the CMS Vendor Meme") giving Day Software's answers to all 15 checklist items in my Reality Checklist. Not only that, Michael created a scoring system, assigned scores to Day's answers, and challenged ("tagged") several other vendors to respond in like manner.

This set off a flood of responses from vendors (including many vendors who weren't tagged by anyone), and the results are still coming in. The situation is well-captured by Jon Marks in his excellent series of blog posts here, where (incidentally) he calls it a Celebrity CMS Deathmatch.

As a result of all this, I've been accused of starting a meme, which makes me want to understand "meme" better. So I've done a little digging and found the internet definitions of meme rather unsatisfying. They seem sloppy, semantically speaking. Maybe that's just in the nature of memes.

Some definitions equate meme with slang. (But in that case, why not just stick with slang?) Other definitions point in the direction of slang with a pop-culture theme. Or anything on the internet that has a catchy phrase associated with it. It gets even sloppier: If you go to http://knowyourmeme.com, you find things like Yo Dawg, Advice Dog, and I Like Turtles. (But oddly, not WTF?)

Some people feel that meme gives memetics a bad name.

What I've decided is that it's easier for me to understand meme in terms of its characteristics rather than a declarative definition. From what I can tell, a meme has characteristics of:

1. Theme: A meme captures a theme
2. Originality: in a new way, with new nuancing
3. Compositionality: New nuance is achieved by combining other terms and themes.
4. Emergent lexical cohesion (tm): Through suitable juxtaposition of imagery, slang, conceptual archetypes, etc., it becomes apparent to the first-time listener that a familiar notion is encapsulated in the meme. That is, a person hearing it for the first time can synthesize the intended meaning, even if the meaning is unexpected.
5. Transmissibility: The meme is easily communicated from one person to another.
6. Contagion: A meme usually spreads. If it didn't, it wouldn't enter the common lexicon.

That's still not a satisfying definition of "meme," to me, but it captures a lot more of it than the definitions I've seen floating around on the Web.

So I guess maybe I am guilty of creating a meme, if "We Get It" combined with "checklist" combined with "CMS Vendors" produces a meme. But it seems weakly reachable somehow.

"10 Things About {X}" seems to qualify as a meme, though.

Tagging someone to get them to participate in a meme-off seems not a meme but a pattern. But then again, maybe patterns are memes.

And so, to finish off this post, I invite commenters to answer the following queston: How many memes you can find in this blog post? I see quite a few. But I am interested in knowing what others see in terms of memes.

Also, a challenge (extra points, and attribution, to anyone who answers this correctly). Explain the following meme:

厚黑學 厚黑学

(It's one of my favorites.)

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