A meme you won’t laugh at: How culture suffers due to our addiction to virality

Just a few hours into the start of WWII, British troops loaded hundreds of hot air balloons with millions of leaflets of propaganda to be flown into Germany and dispersed behind enemy lines. At the time, airborne leaflet propaganda was the cleanest way of attacking enemy morale and was a major military tactic for both the Axis and Allied powers. Overall, an estimated six billion leaflets were dropped in Western Europe over the course of WWII.

We’ve come a long way since these “paper bullets of psychological warfare”. However, humanity is still deeply entrenched in a War of Ideas. In fact, I don’t think that we’ll ever not be in a War of Ideas. But, that doesn’t mean it won’t evolve.

Today, the term we’ve come to adopt is Memetic Warfare.

“Memetic”? As in Internet memes?

Sort of. A meme is actually a general term for a “unit of cultural ideas” coined by Richard Dawkins back in the 70s. It just so happens that Internet memes took over the moniker because they are the most tangible and evident way of seeing “units of culture” take shape. A meme can be spread through writing, gestures, speech, rituals, videos, etc. Memes are a cultural disguise for how ideas are spread – in the way that genes carry traits, memes carry ideas.

As we know, ideas are extremely powerful. Freedom is an idea millions of people have died to uphold. Capitalism and communism are clashing ideas that led us to put a man on the moon.

Memetic warfare is essentially a constant fight to spread, control, and diminish the ideas that people believe in. Books, videos, speeches, artwork, toys, photos, etc. are all memes. They all have the ability to change massive cultural beliefs very, very fast.

It’s for this reason proponents theorize that memes are a viral phenomenon.

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Ideas are Viruses

Memes, like viruses, evolve by processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance. Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts.

Perhaps by coincidence or on purpose, we have the term “contagious ideas”. There are memes that are virally-superior and spread far faster.

Contagious ideas could be capitalism in America. The memes which spread it were material goods, magazines, TV shows, and suburban life. In a decade’s time, every American had the thought in their head that they deserved a house, a yard, a car, a wife, two kids, and a dog. Every couple of years, if they worked hard enough and saved enough money, they would upgrade those goods (well, the car and house at least).

More recently, we all witnessed the MeToo Movement materialize and spread like wildfire. MeToo is an idea. Articles and first-hand accounts were the memes – the units of culture – which spread the idea.

A great idea is spread very subtly, almost without a person knowing they are prescribing to the idea. Do you really think that every German would’ve got behind the Nazis if Hitler unveiled his full plan so blatantly? Of course not. He gave them snippets that they could get behind, promising a prosperous future.

Ideas that go really far are subtly disguised behind extravagant showmanship, heartfelt imagery, and captivating mantras.

This is why social media and the Internet make such a great arena for memetic warfare. It’s a constant stream of imagery and showmanship with everything. The subtlety of ideas being spread is astounding.

Someone can post a video of a turtle getting a straw stuck in its nose, people share the meme (in this case a heartfelt video), and now all of a sudden California and probably soon the entire country will ban plastic straws.

Can you imagine how long it would’ve taken for this idea to spread two decades ago?

We can come to the agreement that in the same way that viruses thrive in warm environments, memes thrive on the Internet and social media. There’s never been a tool so readily available to spread memes and therefore ideas.

The problem is that social media does not allow for fair memetic warfare to take place.

Anyone with some money can artificially create virality of a meme by creating bots to share the post. To the average viewer, they respect the meme since it appears to have resonated with millions of other people. We see this in the battle over tough, controversial topics all the time (abortion, 2nd Amendment, etc…).

When it comes to any sort of competition (politics especially), the means for slandering their opponent is very simple. Creating fake accounts to infiltrate opposing groups and spread false information, thus undermining the legitimacy of their opponent.

Memetic warfare has become a very dirty game on social media. This is why I’m particularly excited for the emergence of blockchain-enabled social media.

The Future of Social Media

With blockchain-enabled social media, there’s no opportunity for people to boost their ideas or companies to pay for reach. Bots do not exist to artificially spread memes. It’s all organic based on the audience and what they deem is good content. This is vastly different than Facebook and Twitter, where anybody with money and an idea can pay for attention.

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