Memes on the Net
Principia Cybernetica Web

Memes on the Net

The Internet provides a wholly new medium for the efficient spreading of memes, both through email and through websites.

It is obvious that the media by which a meme is communicated, such as scientific journals, church preachings, or radio stations, will greatly influence its eventual spread. The most important medium at present is the emerging global computer network, which can transmit any type of information to practically any place on the planet, in a negligible time.

This highly increased efficiency of transmission directly affects the dynamics of replication. Meme transmission over the network has a much higher copying-fidelity than communication through image, sound or word. Digitalisation allows the transfer of information without loss, unlike the analog mechanisms of photocopying, filming or tape recording. Fecundity too is greatly increased, since computers can produce thousands of copies of a message in very little time. Longevity, finally, becomes potentially larger, since information can be stored indefinitely on disks or in archives. Together, these three properties ensure that memes can replicate much more efficiently via the networks. This makes the corresponding memotypes and sociotypes potentially less fuzzy.

In addition, the network transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. This means that a new development does not need to diffuse gradually from a center outwards, as, e.g., fashions or rumours do. Such diffusion can easily be stopped by different kinds of physical or linguistic barriers. On the net, an idea can appear virtually simultaneously in different parts of the world, and spread independently of the distance or proximity between senders and receivers.

Chain letters

The simplest example of a meme that takes into advantage these network features is a chain-letter: a message sent to different people with the express request to copy it and distribute it further. This is motivated by anticipated rewards for those who do (and punishment for those who don't). Paper chain-letters are often poorly readable photocopies, or manuscripts retranscribed numerous times by hand or by typewriter, with the insertion of plenty of spelling and semantic errors. The effort and cost of copying and distribution moreover limit the number of copies per generation to about 20. Chain-letters distributed by electronic mail, on the other hand, can be sent to hundreds or thousands of people at once, at virtually no efforts or costs, and without information degradation.

Though I have received more chain-letters by email than by post, chain-letters on the net are still a minor phenomenon. Although their spread is very much facilitated by the net, the same applies to all other types of messages. That means that there is increased competition between all these different memes for a limited resource: the attention a user pays to the information he or she receives. Because chain-letters fulfil relatively few of the criteria that distinguish successful memes from unsuccessful ones, they are unlikely to win this competition.

Virtual replication on the Web

The development from the net as carrier of email messages to the World-Wide Web as repository of interconnected documents has greatly changed the dynamics of meme replication. On the Web, information is no longer distributed by sending copies of files to different recipients. The information is rather stored in one particular location, the "server", where everyone can consult it. "Consultation" means that a temporary copy of the file is downloaded to the RAM memory of the user's computer, so that it can be viewed on the screen. That copy is erased as soon the user moves on to other documents. There is no need to store a permanent copy since the original will always be available. That does not mean that replicator dynamics no longer apply: the interested user will normally create a "bookmark" or "link", i.e. a pointer with the address of the original file, so that it can be easily retrieved later. A link functions as a virtual copy (also called an "alias" file), which produces real, but temporary, copies the moment it is activated.

The success of a web document can then be measured by the number of virtual copies or links pointing to it: the documents with most pointers will be used most extensively. There are already web robots, i.e. programs which automatically scan the Web, that make "hit parades" of the documents which are linked to most often. For example, it is likely that a reproduction of the works of Van Gogh on the Web will be much more popular in number of pointers than the work of some unknown 20th century painter.

Meme Cooperation: towards a Global Brain

Let us now see how memes on the net can cooperate or compete. Like genes, memes on the web are arranged in networks, where one document points to a number of supporting documents, which in turn link to further supporting documents. Linked documents cooperate, in the sense that they support, confirm or extend each other's ideas. Competing documents, such as announcements of commercial competitors, will not link to each other, or only refer to each other with a phrase like "you should certainly not believe what is said there".

Assuming that two competing documents are equally convincing otherwise, the competition will be won or lost by the number of links that point to each of them. The more pointers to a document can be found, the more people will consult it, and the more further pointers will be made. This is the same kind of self-reinforcing process that leads to conformity, to all members of a group settling on the same meme ensemble. The difference is that now there are no separate groups: on the global network, everyone can communicate with everyone, and every document can link to every other document. The end result is likely to be the emergence of a globally shared ideology, or "world culture", transcending the old geographical, political and religious boundaries. (Note that such homogeneization of memes only results for memes that are otherwise equivalent, such as conventions, standards or codes. Beliefs differing on the other dimensions of meme selection will be much less influenced by conformist selection.)

Such a networked ideology would play a role similar to that of the genome, the network of interconnected genes that stores the blueprint, and controls the physiology, of a multicellular organism. The corresponding "organism" or sociotype for this meme network would be the whole of humanity, together with its supporting technology. Individual humans would play a role similar to the organism's cells, which in principle have access to the whole of the genome, but which in practice only use that part of it necessary to fulfil their specific function.

There is a better metaphor for the emerging global network. Rather than comparing it to an organism's genome, which is normally static and evolves only because of random copying errors, it can be likened to the organism's brain, which learns and develops in a non-random way. The network functions like a nervous system for the social superorganism, transmitting signals between its different "organs", memorizing its experiences, making them available for retrieval when needed, and generally steering and coordinating its different functions. Thus, it might be viewed as a global brain.


Heylighen F. (1996): "Evolution of Memes on the Network", in: Ars Electronica Festival 96. Memesis: the future of evolution, G. Stocker & C. Schpf (eds.) (Springer, Vienna/New York), p. 48-57.

Copyright© 1997 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heyilghen

Oct 3, 1997


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