// Patrick Louis

Internet: Medium For Communication, Medium For Narrative Control

The Artifacts And Spaces: Memes & Cults

Metamorphosis from a frog's head to Apollo. Repelled bestiality

  • Internet: Medium For Communication, Medium For Narrative Control
  • Part 1 — The Artifacts and Spaces
  • Section 4 — Memes & Cults
Table Of Content
  • Defining Memes
  • Internet Memes As A new Mode Of Communication
  • Memeplex — The Meme Ecosystems
  • Effective Memes
  • Memeoids
  • Relation To Cults

In this last section of our first part about artifacts and places, we’ll explore memes, internet memes, and cults, their definitions, how they have transformed and crisscrossed, their relationship, their role as communication vectors, and the extreme forms that they can take.

Meme is a word that comes up in many conversations. It can refer to two related definitions, the classic one and the internet-related one.

Let’s start with the classic definition.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a meme as “an element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, especially imitation”.
Keith Henson defines memes as “replicating information patterns: ways to do things, learned elements of culture, beliefs or ideas.”

A meme is a unit of culture, it is copied from other individuals, and propagates by being actively shared. It encompasses constituents of culture within itself. A mix of narrative, ideas, behaviors, and tropes.
The meme information has not only to propagate but also to have an impact and persist.

The memotype, the actual information-content of a meme, its semantic core, can have direct or indirect meaning. It can use figurative language that resonates within a culture such as commonly recurring images, rhetorics, motifs, and clichés.
In its physical form, its appearance, a meme can be contained in any media shell: verbal, visual, textual, auditory, gustatory, sensory, or anything the senses can allow.

These definitions are enticing but don’t include the essential novelty that the concept of meme has brought: a parallel with genes. The name comes from a mix of gene and mimetes, from the Greek mimetes, the imitator or pretender. It was initially supposed to be called Mimeme but got abbreviated to meme.
Thus, memes also add the notion that the transmitted information is granular and can be studied from an evolutionary standpoint. Memes are transported in their media package, the copies are subject to variation, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again. Only successful variants can survive.

Susan Blackmore re-stated the definition of memes as: “whatever is copied from one person to another person, whether habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information. Memes, like genes, are replicators in the sense as defined by Dawkins.”

Memetics is the study of the analogy between the elements moving in an “information society” and Darwinian evolution. This is done in multiple ways, one of them is to apply models to visualize the transfer of information, to see the criteria that makes them stick, to analyze what makes them successful and reproduce. We’ve done a great overview in the previous sections on big data and models of information flow.

There are two movements that argue different definitions of what memes are.

  1. A unit of cultural transmission (that can be copied, located in the brain). That can be described as a memory item, a portion of neurally-stored information that is instantiated/caused by interacting with another person’s nervous system. (I know this is heavy).
  2. Observable cultural artifacts and behavior.

Some people think memes have a physical nature in the brain and others think that they only exist within society and not as observable entities in the brain. Essentially, one group defines memes as internal and another defines them as external to oneself.
The first group argues that in the future we could obtain technologies that would allow us to find such observable meme.
Due to these separate definitions, it’s better to differentiate and study memes using two words.

  • i-meme, for the internal cognitive phenomena like neuronal behavior, studied via fMRI, neuroimaging techniques, genetic profiling, hormonal tests, and neurochemical reactions.
  • e-meme, for the external phenomena like culture and behavior studied by simulated propagation on social networks, game theory, attention and awareness studies, motivations, emotions, etc..

Like any scientific endeavor, it’s important that things be quantifiable and well-defined, otherwise it’s a show-stopper. Research on memes always precisely do that, for example let’s quote a paper: “A meme is information (using Shannon’s definition as that which reduces uncertainty) transmitted by one or more primary sources to recipients who, as secondary sources, retransmit the information to at least an order of magnitude more recipients than primary sources, where propagation or the information persist at least ten hours and the information has observable impact in addition to its transmission.”
Most research focus on e-memes.

It’s also good to be aware that there are skeptics about the terminology used when comparing memes to genes as they don’t equate to one another. The critics call memetics a pseudoscience because memes do not follow the same selection criteria as genes. Namely, the definition of a meme is still vague, there is no scientific demonstration of the replication happening, the encoding of a meme isn’t known, and the mechanisms of replication aren’t stable.
Memes can thus be placed in between the science fiction ideas of brainwashing, viral marketing, and Darwinian evolution.
Regardless, playing with the notion that cultural information moves like genes is interesting in and of itself as a tool for thoughts.

In common parlance when someone says meme they can mean “internet meme,” usually a photograph with a clever caption that is shared around the Web. Often created anonymously, remixed endlessly, and shared constantly, the most viral memes seem to materialize out of nowhere.
The term has seen a rebirth with the internet, even the Merriam-Webster notes that a meme is now popularly defined as “an amusing or interesting item or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media.”

Limor Shifman characterizes these internet memes as:

  • A group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which
  • were created with awareness of each other, and
  • were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users.

The author of the original meme idea, Dawkins, noted in 2013 that it “has itself mutated and evolved in a new direction. An internet meme is a hijacking of the original idea. Instead of mutating by random chance, before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity. In the hijacked version, mutations are designed — not random — with the full knowledge of the person doing the mutating”

However, even though internet memes are associated with creative medium like funny image macros, this perception is limiting. Internet memes are “culturally resonant items easily shared and spread online”, and as with anything on this communication channel they have to follow its rules to succeed.
As a consequence, the sharing and virality aspects are self-explanatory, these criteria are required of social media messages for them to pierce through bubbles. In that case, it isn’t surprising that the concept of memes, when applied to the internet, will have to be deliberately designed using attention grabbers such as visual content. In that sense, internet memes are only instances of memes and not a brand-new definition.

However, unlike generic memes, the appearance of internet memes is limited to what can be transported on the internet. This can be textual, audio, or visual.

  • Verbal media memes: slogans, words, text, keywords, hashtags, etc..
  • Audio media memes: songs, melodies, etc..
  • Visual media memes: images, posters, “Photoshoped” pictures, caricatures, etc..
  • Hybrid/audiovisual media memes: video, vines, etc..

Internet memes are culturally relevant, broadly resonant, organically developed, and voluntarily spread.
On the internet they have become a new shared cultural language, a way to convey meaning. It’s a new type of vehicle for communication, packing ideas into transportable containers that can evoke meaning, emotions, memories and more.
The sentence “a picture is worth a thousand words” applies well to internet memes.

Memes are convenient and accessible mental model creators. They offer a quick way to construct a mental representation of a situation, event, or object and allow to process, organize, comprehend, explain, judge, and formulate predictions and inferences about these former.
They provide a narrative in a condensed package, and so are tools for analysis. They are media rhetoric, deconstructing complex ideas using compressed symbolic images/text/audio.
As you can see, it makes memes excellent persuasion and propaganda anchors and hooks, you can revisit the section on propaganda and persuasion for more info.

Even if some memes weren’t created with a purpose, they will sooner or later be appropriated by political or business elites for leverage. Many memes, because of their symbiosis with social media, have to frequently show strong emotions that is with or against ideologies, show humor, parody, be snarky, silly, witty, angry, and most predominantly be poignant.
As was said in the social media section, it is our own confused cultural codes that are abused to make messages spread. That is why successful memes take stances, either as meme-aggressor — discrediting an idea, political program, politics, or media person or authority — or as meme-protector — a message to keep the status quo, enhance a person’s profile or authority, or protect a state ideology.
Memes frame the attention on a single aspect of an issue and cannot confer enough nuances due to their condensed form. They are filtered views of the world.

However, in the eye of the average person, internet memes are looked at as entertainment content, more precisely infotainment — like anything that is on social media. It is easy to overlook their power as they do not appear to have substantive content and can take the form of hastily constructed cartoons. Nevertheless, after the 2016 USA elections, the media outlets of the world started crowning memes as “the new king of political communications”.

Unlike TV, printed media, and most other forms of communication, internet memes are built for speedy consumption on smartphones and are prioritized because of the visual aspect of social networking. They provide a quick emotional hit in comparison with long-winded articles, and thus an instant payoff.
Studies have shown that people perceive internet memes via a peripheral route in their brain, according to Richard Petty’s elaboration likelihood model of persuasion (ELM). This means that they rely on a general impression, the mood, and early part of the message contained in the meme and not on any significant cognitive efforts.
This goes together with the notion that internet memes are perceived as infotainment.
This peripheral route isn’t effective when it comes to long-term changes in attitudes but can have some influence on the short-term. However, as you can imagine, this can be countered with repetition, more units of the same message.

More than anything, memes are a way for individuals to express themselves, to show who they are and what they believe in. Consuming and sharing memes is an act of identification.
It has been found that there is a close relation between belonging to a sub-culture or having affinity to a group and the propagation of related internet memes. They are used as a form of commentary, or even rebellion against or for official discourse.
People might even seek out memes as a type of emotional release.

This creates a constellation of memes, a meme pool. In it, there are organizations of large groups that are copied and passed together, co-adapted for their survival. We call them meme complexes, or memeplexes.
The memes are aware of each others, like cross-breeding, sometimes cross-referencing the format, appearance, message, or semantic core of other memes.
This symbiosis reinforces individual memes.

The memeplex, like an ecosystem, balances itself with different memes, creating a memetic equilibrium. Similar to how propaganda sells a coherent world of cohesive meaning. Some people like to talk of memes as the new urban legends medium, the modern hermetism or mysticism, others as an ecological forest.
Experts in the domain of semiotic are getting interested in memes for this reason. Semiotic being the study of signs and symbols with an emphasis on their interpretation, context, and meaning. It covers many of the things we’ve seen and we’ll see, such as: ideologies, persistent beliefs, commonly held views, cultural anxieties, dominant mindsets, received wisdoms, expectations, preconceived notions, assumptions, widespread preoccupations, historical facts, principles, ideals, supposed eternal truths, unspoken tensions, shared hopes, master narratives, public opinions, prevalent attitudes, considerations of what is normal, outlook, established power structures, and more.

Through different means, such as the gathering of big data, it is possible to track the propagation of the memes across multiple communities and measure their influence, discover who influences others the most and which variants are best.

A research analyzing memes generation on online platforms has showed that fringe communities such as 4chan and reddit r/The_Donald (defunct) were big generators of memes, which then were influential on more frequented social networks such as Twitter. Their messages were mainly political ones, imbued with emotional and hateful content.
Nothing surprising here either.

Even though we can track the spread of memes, the real origin of them is often unknown. Some have come to call this phenomenon crowd-sourced democratic expression, and others an intellectual apocalypse. That reminds us of what social media are about.
This means that there is no accountability for the creation of the message. It makes it harder for political groups to blame or retaliate against the memotype, or even criticise the creator, as they could with mainstream media reporters or journalists.
Indirectly, that’s also an advantage for the propagandist, they can use memes as tools of black propaganda, hiding their identity.

We’ve seen that emotions and shock-value make a meme spread. What other criteria make a meme successful?

Let’s state something from the get go: Memes do not have to be true to replicate. Memes aren’t about their creation but about their spreading. The constant production of new content leads to a fight for the survival of the fittest.

Like genes, meme survival is measured along 3 axis fecundity, fidelity, and longevity. They also spread like viruses. There are studies quantifying the analogy with evolutionary pressure, showing the selection process and the movement between different communities, moving from fringe ones to more mainstream ones. Prosperous memes have to bridge cultures to live on. Being restricted to silos is a disadvantage and can lead to extinction.
Other studies show how the SIR (Susceptible - Infected - Resistant) model of disease applies perfectly to memes. Susceptible people being the ones who hadn’t seen the meme, infected people those who were actively interested in its content and to spread it further, and the recovered were those who had seen the meme and lost interest.
These research and models confirm that memes can be studied like infections. Consequently, they can be treated or have their propagation hindered by quarantine for example.

This is a topic that the author of the concept of memes, Richard Dawkins, directly tackles in the essay entitled “Viruses of the Mind”. Though the essay dives into the parallel with religious doctrines, it still puts down criteria that viruses have to fulfill to survive:

  • Spread silently, be difficult to detect (by its host)
  • Not spread if the virus is already present in the host (double infection)
  • Not kill its host, or infer too much damage, at least not rapidly enough to stop the spread

The essay then extracts and applies this to memes with two conditions:

  • A readiness to replicate information accurately, perhaps with some mistakes that are subsequently reproduced accurately.
  • A readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information, so replicated.

When it comes to the shell of the message, the visual nature of internet memes adds to their potential persuasive power on social media, making them more attractive. They are comparable to editorial cartoons in newspapers.
An image has the advantage of stickiness and brevity, communicating concepts quickly. This is something that has been studied. Our brain interprets images faster than text, thus reducing the likelihood of thinking deeply about the content, as we said earlier. 70% of our neurons are in our eyes, and we process images 60 thousand times faster than any other media type.
Rational discussion is less effective than a visual campaign. Images are more emotionally evocative, and emotional cues have a preferential path in the brain. We do not even need to be aware that these emotions are elicited, they could be subliminal.
As far as metrics go, research in the field of marketing clearly show that visual content is more shared than anything else, help retain information, and make following instructions easier.

When it comes to the memotype, the semantic core of the message, we’ve already mentioned that successful memes are reflections of us. It is worth reiterating.
A meme is an expression of our culture, our beliefs, behaviors, and values. The ones that go viral are unleashing our repressed cultural agenda, they don’t use novelty but use a potential that was already there. They exploit our latent, yet intrinsic, gaps in our cultural code, using our cultural vulnerabilities, the ones we aren’t immune to. Therefore, memes don’t compete for dominance by appealing to our intellect, our compassion, or anything related, but they compete on triggering our automatic impulses.
Logic and truth have nothing to do with memes, but they rely on our flight-or-flight reactions, the fastest reactions. From that perspective, memes aren’t really pro-social but anti-social.
Like viruses, memes reveal less about themselves than about their hosts. We wouldn’t be sick if we had an immune system capable of recognizing the shell and then neutralizing the code it contains.

Thus, memetic material that is provocative, sensational, making news headlines, and shocking will be more successful. Studies show that people are more willing to share memes that evoke stronger disgusts (Heath et al.).
Another study conducted in 2017 related to an analysis of the keywords used in memes shows that the most popular memes were politically related. From USA MAGA movement, to the USA libertarian, to the president of the USA at the time (This study was USA-centric).
That means the content often acts like a propaganda anchor or hook, and is receptive to the current paradigms and belief systems.

Then this all manifests through real consequences such as media confusions, lack of trusts, protests on the streets. It’s all viral memetics in action. We’ll dive into consequences in another part of this series.

Another criteria that helps survival is whether a meme can create a symbiotic relationship with other memes, what we referred to as memeplex. The meme could already fit properly with others, cooperating, or it could develop progressively a real or artificial compatibility.
Ganging up helps the meme flourish, and the longer they are attached together, the more they’ll merge into a single package, a co-evolution.
Additionally, memes can have defensive systems, reject other memes that would hurt it. Consequently, creating an intolerance within the meme complex.

The content and the medium aren’t sufficient alone, the context is extremely important too. We need to take into account the external factors such as:

  • The timing to coincide with major events
  • The architecture and dynamics of the network
  • The media literacy and facility of the target population

Let’s now review some of the results of research related to meme success.

The University of Memphis research shows that for an image macro to be successful the predictor variables were:

  • A shorter memes (fewer than four words)
  • The use of concrete terms (more memorable than abstract language)
  • Avoiding swear words as they hamper virality (negatively correlated)

A research on military memetics by Dr.Robert Finkelstein digs into the measurement of the fitness of memes. It calculates the memetic fitness unit as the number of person-hours transformed. The most fit memes correlated with:

  • Propagation (.428): number of recipients, type of recipients, dispersion of recipients
  • Persistence (.284): duration of transmission, duration of memory
  • Entropy (.087): small, medium, large (At this time, we consider smaller memes to be more important than larger memes. Larger memes may all be memeplexes (e.g., the typical human brain cannot hold more than 10 “chunks” of information in short-term memory))
  • Impact (.20): Individual consequence, societal consequence

That means, according to this research, that the most important factor to fitness are propagation and persistence, and impact of a meme, but mostly propagation.

The research also summarizes some criteria that should be applied to the information content of the meme, such as:

  • accuracy
  • relevance
  • timeliness
  • usability
  • completeness
  • brevity
  • security

The computer scientists at the Hebrew University tried to use an algorithm to predict the spread of certain hashtags on Twitter using a dataset of more than 400 million Tweets. Their findings were that successful memes factors were based on:

  • The meme’s content
  • The meme’s context
  • The social graph

Another paper on the military application of memes proposes the following:

  • Meme conciseness (1-10 words)
  • Choosing information which propagates, has impact and persists (Info-PIP), and be able to monitor them via metrics

Some papers even go as far as to say that it’s not really about the meme criteria but the network criteria. That’s what the Indiana University’s Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research found: memes that went viral were no different from those that didn’t, the success was due to the structure of the social network.

These research all go in a direction that echoes what we said earlier: memes are a reflection of us. These memes do not necessarily have to be malicious, they could have beneficial purposes. Today memes have surpassed genes as the dominant driver in human behavior and we have to understand their importance. For that we have to develop a healthy cultural immune response to hostile ones. We should learn to quarantine, distance ourselves, and apply immune attacks to neutralize them when necessary.
These are requirements in an information society.

Two concepts come to mind in relation to our society: memocides — the deliberate eradication of a memeplex from a population, by either killing the host or by censorship — and eunemics — inspired by eugenics but applied to memes, deliberately improving the quality of the meme pool by selective breeding. Eunemics is done through memetic engineering, using engineering principles to mold them.
This means memes can also be informational weapons, propaganda tools.

When meme and memeplex are brought to their extreme, a person is overtaken by them, letting go of their own survival instinct and favoring the meme instead. In the symbiotic relationship, the meme has won and consumed its host. The people affected by this phenomenon are called memeoid.
Examples of this include kamikazes, suicide bombers, cult members, and others. Keeping in mind that the previous criteria for reproduction still applies, namely that the meme should keep their host alive long enough to spread properly.

This is a trading between genetic reproductivity and memetic reproductivity, which might not coincide. Promoting the memeplex might not be correlated with promoting a gene pools. Replacing the purpose of one’s existence with the spread of the meme.

Richard Dawkins cites the following when it comes to memeplex consuming individuals, it becomes a sort of narrative.

  • Impelled by deep inner conviction that something is true/right/virtuous, against all reasons
  • Make positive virtue out of the strong stance on the meme
  • Conviction that mystery is a good thing
  • intolerant behaviour towards perceived rivals of the meme
  • If follow a different meme from parent it comes from a charismatic individual
  • The internal sensations of the meme holder are similar to ones associated with sexual love

Strong memeplex are thus similar to cults, people being mind controlled by ideologies and its members turning into puppets of the memes.
Singer’s six conditions of mind control reverberate this idea:

  • Keep the person unaware of what is going on, and what changes in themselves/their behavior is happening.
  • Control the person’s social and/or physical environment, especially the person’s time. Remind them of the narrative all the time.
  • Systematically create a sense of powerlessness in the person. Keep them away from their former social support group or identity.
  • Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences to inhibit the former identity. Accomplished through various methods of trance induction, speaking patterns, guided imagery, etc..
  • Manipulate a system of rewards, punishments, and experiences to promote the group’s ideology and behaviors. Compliance are rewarded while questioning or doubts are met with redressed and rejection.
  • Put forth a closed system of logic and an authoritarian structure that doesn’t permit feedback and refuses to be modified except by leadership.

These are all things that we’ve seen in the mix of social media space and the usage of memes in their memeplex.
This is especially true of the attention-reward system of social media. As social primates, attention is a measure of status. When we get attention our brain releases chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins, creating an addiction (AAR: Action - Attention - Reward). This system can be shortcut with memes. The memeplex, and the ones carrying it, requires intense social interactions and behaviors such as sharing the meme or reenacting its content.

The members then create their own isolated bubbles of coherent meaning. Some of them opposed, clashing, and creating the rise of many of the things we’ve seen so far.

Clearly, as with propaganda, children are more vulnerable to subversion and are easy pray for memeplex. Children are pre-programmed to absorb useful information at high rate. It is harder as adults to remove the pernicious and damaging information that have been introduced early.

Deprogramming studies, used to get people out of cults, can be applied to memeoids too. They rely on invoking new capture-bonding social reorientation mechanisms.

Similar to our conclusion on propaganda, we have to say that some memeplex can be considered pathogenic but others can be beneficial or relatively harmless. The judgement is subjective.
In a strict sense, everyone, including you and I, are memeoids, carriers of memeplexes. We are all hosts, one way or another, but not everyone reaches a degenerative state, even though we have the potential.

A skill that should be developed is metamemetic thinking: being able to recognize and acknowledge the content of memeplexes, the illogicality in them, and anything related to their attributes.
The metamemetic can also be used to understand the people associated with them. Coming back to our data and metadata section, memes are information and thus can be used to characterize, analyze, and classify people.

This concludes our review of what memes are and their relation with the internet. We’ve first seen their definitions, one is based on a comparison with genes applied to cultural information, and the other to internet image macros and tropes. We’ve then made the parallel to how these two aren’t dissimilar and how internet memes are only instances of memes adapted to social media. We’ve taken a look at how people perceive these memes, how they are used as a way to communicate and express one’s identity. Then we’ve dived into the memeplex, how memes associate themselves to create a world, to better survive. Next, we’ve inspected what makes some memeplex successful by summarizing some research. Finally, we’ve investigated the close relation between the extreme form that memeplex can take, turning people into memoids, and cults.

Table Of Content


Attributions: J.C. Lavater, Physiognomik, Vienna, 1829

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