Memes, literacy and affinity spaces:

Implications for policy and digital divides in education.

Michele Knobel

Montclair State University, NJ (USA) & Central Queensland University, QLD (Australia)

Conference paper presented to the

“Policy Options and Models for Bridging Digital Divides” Conference

Global Challenges of eDevelopment Project, March 14-15, 2005.

Introduction

Memes (pronounced “meems”) are contagious patterns of cultural information that are passed from mind to mind and which directly shape and propagate key actions and mindsets of a social group. Memes include popular tunes, catch-phrases, clothing fashions, architectural styles, ways of doing things, and so on. This paper focuses on the social practices of propagating and circulating memes within internet environments as a significant dimension of cultural production and transmission.

The concept of the meme was first advanced by geneticist Richard Dawkins (1976, 1999), who proposed an evolutionary model of cultural development and change involving the replication of ideas, knowledge, and other cultural information through imitation and transfer. Subsequently, a range of researchers interested in memetics – the study of memes – have argued that electronic networks along with personal predilections and interests provide ideal conditions for propagating and dispersing memes (e.g., Adar, Zhang, Adamic and Lukose 2004, Blackmore 1999, Brodie 1996). One useful way of conceptualizing the ways in which memes are shared and transmitted within and across groups of people and activities is to appropriate James Paul Gee's concept of “affinity spaces.” Affinity spaces are those online and/or offline interactive spaces comprising people held together either loosely or tightly by means of shared activities, interests, and goals (Gee 2004). Although meme-ing – the practice of generating and/or passing on memes – has always been a part of human practice (Blackmore 1999), meme-ing that makes use of relatively well-defined affinity spaces and electronic networks has been identified tentatively as an example of a “new” literacy practice that warrants close attention, particularly with respect to literacy education (Lankshear and Knobel 2003). Moreover, claims concerning the nature and significance of memes beg closer empirical scrutiny than they have received to date. The field of memetics itself is marked by a startling absence of published meme research, with much of the literature given over to arguing over which particular theoretical conception of memes is most useful (cf., Aunger 2002, Blackmore 1999). The chief purpose of this paper therefore is to contribute to laying a foundation for the empirical study of memes as new literacy practices by examining the key elements of successful memes. The paper begins with developing a succinct definition of “meme” and with identifying key characteristics of successful memes in general. This set of characteristics is illustrated by way of two examples of successful internet-mediated memes. Within this discussion of successful memes, attention is paid to examining some implications memes and meme-ing have for contemporary approaches to literacy instruction and new digital technology use in schools. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the ways in which meme-ing may usefully challenge conventional conceptions of education policy and “digital divides”.

Defining a meme

Richard Dawkins, the noted geneticist, is widely credited with coining the term, “meme”, in his paradigm-changing book, The Selfish Gene (1976). As Dawkins himself recalls (1999), his purpose in invoking a term like “meme” to refer to good ideas, “tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions ways of making pots or of building arches” (1976: 192), and so on, was to argue for the importance of small units of information like genes and memes in biological and cultural evolution (1999: xvi). He emphasised in the Selfish Gene that the “real unit of natural selection [whether speaking biologically or culturally] was any kind of replicator, any unit of which copies are made, with occasional errors, and with some influence or power over their own probability of replication” (ibid).

For Dawkins, memes are not metaphors for the transmission of ideas, but are “living structures” that reside within the brain; that is, they comprise a physical structure in each person's neural network (1976). However, even Dawkins himself appears to be taken aback by the vigorous debates that emerged subsequent to the publication of the Selfish Gene and which focused on theorizing the definition of a meme more thoroughly than Dawkins had done. These debates have tended to fall into three camps of thought. These camps are characterized by biological, psychological, and by what can be loosely called sociological definitions of memes respectively. Biological definitions tend to follow either an evolutionary gene model of memes (e.g., Dawkins 1976), or argue for an epidemological conception of memes. The latter uses disease metaphors to explain what memes are and how they work, and treats memes as pathogens in analyses of meme dynamics (e.g., Goodenough and Dawkins 1994, cited in Wilkins 1998: 2). Biological conceptions of memes tend to focus on the effects memes have on behavior (Aunger 2002, Brodie 1997). Psychological and cognitive conceptions of memes tend to pay closer attention to decision-making processes prior to action (Aunger 2002: 37). From this perspective, the brain becomes a selective information processor—unable to process all the information received from moment to moment, and continuously engaged in selecting those units of information deemed worth attention. Interest in selective attention and information processing focusses on the ways in which memes affect decision-making. Memes are defined from this perspective in terms of being ideas spread by “vehicles” that are physical manifestations of the meme (Dennet 1995, cited in Brodie 1996: 30). Sociological definitions of memes downplay any physical neural quality of memes and instead pay attention to the effects of social organization on meme success. For example, from this perspective, memes are “those units of transmitted information that are subject to selection biases at a given level of hierarchical organization of a culture” (Wilkins 1998: 2). That is, social structures on like family, religions, schools and their defining values, mindsets, ways of doing etc. directly impact which memes are most likely to be successfully contagious.

A tendency across all three perspectives to give too much autonomy to memes has long been criticized within the memetics literature (cf., Brodie 1996, Wilkins 1998). A more metaphorical use of the concept, “meme”, that draws on elements of all three theoretical orientations towards memes and takes into account human predilections for patterns, decision-making processes, and social structures, contexts and practices may prove more useful within the field of education. A more metaphorical use of memes enables the examination of modes and means of cultural production and transmission that do not confine analysis to discrete units of information, but take into account the ways in which memes themselves are caught up in realizing and propagating social relations. Memes are therefore usefully defined as contagious patterns of cultural information that are passed from mind to mind by means of selection, infection and replication. Particular configurations of memes are informed by, and in turn help to define and propagate, the relations, actions and/or mindsets of any social group. An idea or information pattern is not a meme until someone replicates it by passing it on to someone else, and the probability of a meme being contagious within a group is directly tied to the values, beliefs and practices of that group (cf. Grant 1990). The social nature of memes is an important dimension of their definition, not least because replication of ideas and patterns requires social interaction. To poach Wittgenstein's famous aphorism concerning the thoroughly social nature of language, there can be no such thing as a “private meme” that occurs only inside one's head and no-one else's.

Threaded through the various available definitions of memes is a sense of “discreteness” or “boundedness” where each meme is concerned. Memeticists use terms like “unit”, “pattern”, “idea”, “structure”, “set” etc. in describing memes which suggest “edges” to memes, even if these edges are blurry and nebulous in reality. This is useful because it justifies the approach taken in this paper that sees memes as recognizable, bounded phenomena that have a material presence in the world and therefore can be subjected to scrutiny. Dawkins' original examples of memes – tunes, good ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches – stand as useful guideposts for identifying and analyzing memes.

Provisional meme typology

A great deal of the memetics literature has been dominated by arguments concerning what is and is not a “meme”. However, conceptual bickering seems to have been something of a dead end for memetics as a distinct field of inquiry, and has produced few empirical studies of actual memes in action (exceptions include: Chattoe 1998, Gatherer 2003). The present paper is not interested in contributing further to stale debates over what memes are, but rather is interested in focusing on reasonably well-defined, widely dispersed, and wildly successful memes in order to better understand how memes operate in everyday life. This position echoes that of Charles Simonyi, a key figure in software development and an early programmer with Microsoft. Simonyi chided Richard Brodie, now a key figure in memetics, for originally missing the point with respect to useful analyses of memes:

“Come on!” exclaimed Charles. “You are asking the wrong question! Who cares if a yawn is a meme or not! The right question is, ‘What are the interesting memes?'” (Brodie 1996: 25).

The following provisional typology maps a range of interesting and successful memes that have been propagated via electronic networks in the past 10 years. A key index of “success” and inclusion in the following typology is that each meme and meme type has been reported in mainstream media venues.

This typology aims at foregrounding social practices associated with meme generation and dispersion. It differentiates between memes that remain relatively stable and intact, and those meme that undergo a kind of deliberate and selective mutation which simultaneously aims at spreading the meme more widely and at embellishing and improving upon the meme itself in ways that extend or proliferate social practices that make use of this meme.

 

Characteristics of successful memes

Dawkins (1976) identified three characteristics of successful memes that remain relevant today: fidelity, fecundity, and longevity. Fidelity refers to qualities of the meme that enable relatively straightforward “copying” of the meme (e.g., an email containing a contagious idea) that keep it relatively “intact” as it passes from mind to mind. Units of information that make sense or are meaningful to a person and can be successfully imitated or reproduced will more easily become memes than units of information that are not easily copied or understood. As Susan Blackmore explains, memes may well be successful because they are memorable , rather than because they are important or useful (p. 57; see also Heylighen 1998: 1 ). Dawkins provides a useful example of how memory, fidelity and ease of copying may work to promote one meme over another. A little before Dawkins coined the term “meme”, an alternative synonym, “culturgen”, was proposed (Dawkins 1999: xiv). Dawkins suggests that “culturgen” never really caught on because it was polysyllabic rather than monosyllabic; did not lend itself easily to developing sub-category words (e.g., unlike meme, which has been hived off into “memeplex”, “memeticist”, “metameme”, “meme pool”, etc.); and was not similar in sound or spelling to a similar or related concept in the way that “meme” and “gene” can be connected. Once “meme” began to catch on, it automatically acquired more attention than “culturgen”, and soon became the dominant concept for explaining the transmission of ideas from mind to mind.

usceptibility is an important part of meme fidelity as well. Susceptibility refers to the “timing” or “location” of a meme with respect to people's openness to it, the meme's relevance to current events, its relation to previous well-established memes, and the interests and values of the affinity space in which the meme is unleashed. Ideal conditions of susceptibility will let the “hooks” and “selection attractors” built into the design and function of the meme itself take hold more easily and in ways that maximize the possibilities for the meme to “catch on” and be transmitted rapidly from person to person without being hindered or slowed by early warning filters or other forms of cultural immunity (cf., Bennahum in Lankshear and Knobel 2003). For example, photos and footage of El Fardos Square in Baghdad that captured the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue after Baghdad was taken by US-led troops were beamed around the world by the mainstream media. These images showed a crowded square filled with cheering Iraqis. The meme, “the liberation of Baghdad – and all of Iraq – thanks to the U.S.”, was set firmly in place with its hooks embedded in “9/11” events and President Bush's “war on terrorism.” An alternative meme was soon posted on the internet by Fozzy (his posting name), a keen-eyed amateur news hound. This new meme challenged broadcast versions of what had happened by analysing a wide angle photograph of the exact same event, which clearly showed the square ringed by U.S. tanks and only a small knot of mostly Iraqi men and boys—with at least one Iraqi male in this group identified as a soldier in the local militia in the employ of the US army—milling around by the statue itself (see Fozzy 2003). Fozzy's counter meme concerning U.S.-owned broadcast media reporting of U.S. military “success” in Iraq spread rapidly from mind to mind via the internet, hooking into anti-war protest memes and ongoing critiques of media representations of war that had emerged much earlier during the Viet Nam war and the more recent Gulf war.

Fecundity, Dawkins' second key characteristic of successful memes, refers to the rate at which an idea or pattern is copied and spread. In other words, the more quickly a meme spreads, the more likely it is that it will capture robust and sustained attention, and will be replicated and distributed (Brodie 1996: 38). A recent example of how the rapid dispersion of a meme can have important material effects in the world is provided by the exposé of fake documentary evidence used on a national news reporting and commentary show – 60 Minutes . This documentary evidence was used in the broadcast report to question President Bush's National Guard service record. The 60 Minutes report drew heavily on a set of military administrative memos from the early 1970s to make its case. Nineteen minutes into the broadcast, TankerKC (his posting name) made a post to the discussion board on the highly conservative website, Freerepublic.com, suggesting that the style and format of the memos did not match those used when he was in the U.S. military during the 1970s (Ooi 2004). Four hours later, Buckhead (his posting name) posted a comment to the same discussion board critiquing the font in which the memos were printed (Ooi 2004). He pointed out that each of the documents shown on CBS was printed in a proportionally spaced font (e.g., Palatino or Times New Roman, used by computers) rather than in a monospace font (e.g., Courier, letter Gothic) used by typewriters. Typewriters were the principle means for creating official memos in the military in the early 1970s. Buckhead's criticism of 60 Minutes' use of fake documentary evidence to discredit Bush just prior to the national elections spread like wildfire throughout the blogosphere (i.e., that space on the internet occupied by weblogs), where it was copied, refined and transmitted to others right across the political spectrum. Buckhead's meme concerning anti-Bush bias in the 60 Minutes broadcast was reported in mainstream media, such as The Washington Post , the New York Times , the LA Times The Australian , the BBC , and on CNN, among others. The exposure of the fake memos and the fecundity of the meme effectively and deleteriously deflected attention from Bush's incomplete National Guard service, cost the host of 60 Minutes at the time – Dan Rather – his job, and significantly weakened the Democratic run-up to the then yet to held presidential elections.

Viewed from the standpoint of this “fake memos” meme, an important dimension is added to Dawkins' “fecundity” criterion by Brodie, who argues that memes tend to infect minds more quickly when the meme is transmitted by “trustworthy others” (Brodie1996: 152). The typology of memes developed earlier in this paper (see Figure 1) suggests additional factors may also be at play with respect to meme fecundity and speed of transmission. In short, it appears that Brodie's “trustworthy others” can include “people like me” (as in the case of Buckhead above, and the rapid way in which his meme positively infected conservative minds and online spaces first) or “people I'd like to be like.” Indeed, affinity spaces are ideal conduits for memes. As mentioned earlier, affinity spaces are sets of interactions and activities among people who are linked by shared activities, interests, and goals (Gee 2005). Affinity spaces can be fixed or fleeting and are always thoroughly relational in nature. Fozzy's meme, also described earlier and which criticized mainstream media reporting of the war on Iraq, proved to be highly contagious within anti-war blog spaces, and left-of-centre media analysis groups (e.g., indymedia.org). Certain internet-mediated affinity spaces also seem to attract people who are “cool hunting”. That is, a relatively small number of affinity spaces are associated with trend-spotting, with “clearly cool people”, and with reporting on the “next big thing” (e.g., boingboing.net, slashdot.com). These spaces always have a high “cool quotient” and are seen as worth participating in – either as a contributor and/or as a reader and comment-maker – by anyone wanting to appear “plugged in” to cutting edge cultural or subcultural evolution. Online, contributing directly to spreading a new, mutating meme is considered cool, and generating an entirely new meme is even cooler. Being among the first to spot a new online mutating meme is perhaps coolest of all. Examples of popular internet-distributed memes with high coolness quotients include All Your Base Are Belong To Us (planettribes.com/allyourbase/index.shtml), The Star Wars Kid ( jedimaster.net ), That Tourist Guy (carcino.gen.nz/ images/index.php/627708f8), Numa Numa Dance (newgrounds.com/portal/view/206373), and Lost Frog (lostfrog.org). In many ways, these kinds of memes are often absurdist in nature and akin to shared jokes between friends; outsiders will often have difficulty seeing the humour or point in many of these memes. Susan Blackmore, a prominent memeticist, is clearly right when she argues that the “…effective transmission of memes depends critically on human preferences, attention, emotions and desires…” (Blackmore 1999: 58).

Longevity is also a key characteristic of a successful meme. The longer a meme survives, the more it can be copied and passed on to new minds, exponentially ensuring its ongoing transmission. Longevity assumes that optimal conditions for a meme's replication and innovation are in place. A classic example of a long-lived meme that has made its way into cyberspace where it has become a fecund meme indeed is what has come to be known as the “Nigerian letter scam”. The email versions of this letter can vary in terms of contextual details, but the gist of the email remains constant: a relative of or ex-government official for a deposed dictator of an African country needs to launder an enormous amount of misappropriated funds through a mediating bank account and offers the reader a generous proportion of the total sum for providing a temporary holding account for the money. Victims provide bank account numbers and soon find their accounts are emptied and the “relative” or “dignitary” is nowhere to be found (Glasner 2002, Wired 2002). The longevity of this particular “get rich quick” meme must be due in large part to people falling for the scam, otherwise the meme would not be as long-lived as it has been. Indeed, some reports claim that the Nigerian letter scam actually generates higher median losses per victim per year in the U.S. than does identity theft, although the identity theft meme is given much more airplay in media venues (see di Justo and Stein 2002).

Two successful memes

Nike sweatshop shoes: A high fidelity, high fecundity meme

(i) Background

Early in 2001 the Nike sportswear company began running a campaign called, “ Build Your Own Nike iD Products” that enabled buyers to customise and personalise their Nike gear (see nikeid.nike.com). Jonah Peretti, a graduate student at MIT at the time, was struck by incongruencies between Nike's advertising slogans that featured freedom, personal choice and agency, and reports of Nike's exploitation of workers in Asian and South American countries (Perretti 2001). Peretti decided to order a pair of running shoes with the word “sweatshop” embroidered on them. Nike rejected his order and sparked the following email correspondence between Peretti and the company:

 

From: "Personalize, NIKE iD"

To: "'Jonah H. Peretti'"

Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

Your NIKE iD order was cancelled for one or more of the following reasons.

1) Your Personal iD contains another party's trademark or other intellectual property.

2) Your Personal iD contains the name of an athlete or team we do not have the legal right to use.

3) Your Personal iD was left blank. Did you not want any personalization?

4) Your Personal iD contains profanity or inappropriate slang, and besides, your mother would slap us.

If you wish to reorder your NIKE iD product with a new personalization please visit us again at www.nike.com

Thank you,

NIKE iD

__________________________________

From: "Jonah H. Peretti"

To: "Personalize, NIKE iD"

Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

Greetings,

My order was canceled but my personal NIKE iD does not violate any of the criteria outlined in your message. The Personal iD on my custom ZOOM XC USA running shoes was the word "sweatshop." Sweatshop is not: 1) another's party's trademark, 2) the name of an athlete, 3) blank, or 4) profanity. I choose the iD because I wanted to remember the toil and labor of the children that made my shoes. Could you please ship them to me immediately.

Thanks and Happy New Year,

Jonah Peretti

___________________________________

From: "Personalize, NIKE iD"

To: "'Jonah H. Peretti'"

Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

Dear NIKE iD Customer,

Your NIKE iD order was cancelled because the iD you have chosen contains, as stated in the previous e-mail correspondence, "inappropriate slang". If you wish to reorder your NIKE iD product with a new personalization please visit us again at www.nike.com

Thank you,

NIKE iD

____________________________________

From: "Jonah H. Peretti"

To: "Personalize, NIKE iD"

Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

Dear NIKE iD,

Thank you for your quick response to my inquiry about my custom ZOOM XC USA running shoes. Although I commend you for your prompt customer service, I disagree with the claim that my personal iD was inappropriate slang. After consulting Webster's Dictionary, I discovered that "sweatshop" is in fact part of standard English, and not slang. The word means: "a shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions" and its origin dates from 1892. So my personal iD does meet the criteria detailed in your first email.

Your web site advertises that the NIKE iD program is "about freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are." I share Nike's love of freedom and personal expression. The site also says that "If you want it done right . . . build it yourself." I was thrilled to be able to build my own shoes, and my personal iD was offered as a small token of appreciation for the sweatshop workers poised to help me realize my vision. I hope that you will value my freedom of expression and reconsider your decision to reject my order.

Thank you,

Jonah Peretti

_________________________________________

From: "Personalize, NIKE iD"

To: "'Jonah H. Peretti'"

Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

Dear NIKE iD Customer,

Regarding the rules for personalization it also states on the NIKE iD web site that "Nike reserves the right to cancel any Personal iD up to 24 hours after it has been submitted". In addition it further explains: "While we honor most personal iDs, we cannot honor every one. Some may be (or contain) others' trademarks, or the names of certain professional sports teams, athletes or celebrities that Nike does not have the right to use. Others may contain material that we consider inappropriate or simply do not want to place on our products. Unfortunately, at times this obliges us to decline personal iDs that may otherwise seem unobjectionable. In any event, we will let you know if we decline your personal iD, and we will offer you the chance to submit another." With these rules in mind we cannot accept your order as submitted. If you wish to reorder your NIKE iD product with a new personalization please visit us again at www.nike.com

Thank you,

NIKE iD

______________________________________

From: "Jonah H. Peretti"

To: "Personalize, NIKE iD"

Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000

Dear NIKE iD,

Thank you for the time and energy you have spent on my request. I have decided to order the shoes with a different iD, but I would like to make one small request. Could you please send me a color snapshot of the ten-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?

Thanks,

Jonah Peretti

Source: Snopes. (http://www.snopes.com/business/consumer/nike.asp#add; accessed 7 March, 2005).

(ii) Fidelity, fecundity and longevity

Peretti forwarded the set of email exchanges to a dozen friends, who forwarded it on to their friends, and so on. Peretti's email correspondence soon reached millions of people via email networks, and captured mainstream broadcast attention. Peretti's meme was the subject of a range of news and magazine reports, including Time magazine, and Peretti himself was interviewed on the Today Show , a popular news events talk show in the US.

Peretti had never expected his email exchange to attract so much attention and to be forwarded intact to so many people around the world. Clearly his insistence on making explicit in his emails Nike's involvement in exploiting workers in developing countries and the contradictions between Nike's “public face” and marketing slogans and its actual production practices hooked into a sizable and widespread discontent with the production practices of large clothing corporations. Peretti's meme has proved to be long lived, as well. A quick Google search using the terms “nike”, “sweatshop” and “shoes” brings up page after page of links to websites that have faithfully reproduced Peretti's meme, with many adding their own analyses or suggestions for resisting corporate exploitation of low-wage workers and corporate domination of everyday life. From a memetics perspective, Peretti's meme was especially infectious because of the absurdist humour contained in the email exchange in the form of Peretti's seemingly innocent openness about Nike's sweatshop production practices and the Nike corporation's refusal to state why they would not allow “sweatshop” to be embroidered on their shoes. The humour of the exchange does not hide the fact that the email exchange is nonetheless a serious reminder of corporate double-speak.

(iii) Networks and affinity spaces

Peretti directly credits online networks and like-minded citizens with the success of his “culture jamming” exchange with Nike. He explains,

Although the press has presented my battle with Nike as a David versus Goliath parable, the real story is the battle between a company like Nike, with access to the mass media, and a network of citizens on the Internet who have only micromedia at their disposal (Peretti 2001: 1).

Peretti's “Nike sweatshop shoe” meme demonstrates the power of affinity groups with respect to spreading and reinforcing a successful meme. This example also demonstrates some of the material effects online memes can have on life offline; Peretti's meme contributed directly to a series of grassroots responses to corporate production methods and values (cf., accounts on Adbusters.org).

Him Name is Hopkin Green Frog: A mutating visual meme

•  Background

The “lost frog” meme was sparked by a child's hand-produced flier announcing a lost pet that was posted in streets around Seattle (USA) (see Figure 2). During September, 2004, a scanned image of this flier was posted to an online image-sharing community, and members of this group quickly picked up on the pathos and determination in the child's language and hand-drawn images. Members of this group used image editing software, such as Adobe's Photoshop, to manipulate or photoshop the original image. The resulting meme mutations produced by this group, and later, by others around the world, are always humorous, yet often touching. Collectively they narrate massive, albeit fictional, citizen mobilization in the ongoing search for Hopkin Green Frog.

 

Figure 2: Terry's lost frog flier ( Source : lostfrog.org)

These meme mutations were gathered together by Harold Ikes and archived on lostfrog.org. The archive captured widespread attention and quickly became a popular hyperlink in blog posts and discussion forums. Late in September, 2004, Mike Whybark, a resident of Seattle, began researching the background story to the original flier and reported his findings in The Nation (see Whybark 2004). The flier was produced by Terry, a 16-year-old autistic boy who had lost a toy frog that had been very special to him. Despite the “mystery” of Terry and his lost pet being to all intents and purposes “solved”, photoshoppers continue to contribute to the archive, and lostfrog.org currently hosts over 100 mutations of the original flier. The meme has spilled over into meatspace as well; many of its hosts did their own independent background research and purchased replacement frogs on eBay to send to Terry. Businesses are cashing in on the meme as well, with a “lost frog” t-shirt (store.northshoreshirts.com/ilomyfrhisna.html) and a postcard (cafepress.com/hopkin.15679312) available for purchase online.

•  Fidelity, fecundity and longevity

The photoshopped images archived on lostfrog.org remain highly faithful to the “searching for lost pet” meme generated by Terry with his original flier. However, photoshoppers have liberally reinterpreted his flier in over 100 different ways, using it more as a “jumping off point” (Doctorow 2004: 1) than as a static text to pass on to others. In general, key features from the original flier remain, and, in particular, include the image of the frog drawn by Terry and some of the language he used on the flier (especially, “him name is hopkin green frog” and “p.s. I'll find my frog”). Each photoshopped image is humorous in its own right, and across the archive the images variously make use of typical “missing persons” announcement vehicles (e.g., broadcast media news reports, milk cartons, road signs), crowd scenes seemingly devoted to spreading the news about the lost frog (e.g., a “lost frog” banner at a crowded soccer match), attention-grabbing announcement vehicles (e.g., an aeroplane pulling a banner announcement, Prime Minister Tony Blair carrying lost frog fliers and wearing a lost frog badge), and a host of other “remember hopkin” scenarios (e.g., lost frog video games, lost frog scratch-it lottery tickets, Hopkin's ID on someone's instant message buddy list, Hopkin as a “not found” internet file image). Some of the mutated images offer explanations as to what happened to Hopkin, including being caught up in one of the Raider's of the Lost Ark movies, joining Osama bin Laden, and/or being abducted by aliens.

This “lost frog” meme has not (yet) been widely reported in mainstream broadcast media, although it has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Seattle's The Nation . It has been spread rapidly and widely via the blogosphere, however. A Google search for “lost frog” generates well over 600 direct blog post hyperlinks to the lostfrog.org website, and a similar search using the terms “whybark” and “lost frog” generate over 100 blog post hyperlinks to Mike Whybark's background story that he posted on his own blog (this figure does not include counts of comments readers made in response to each “lost frog” blog post). It seems that the pathos of a child's pet being lost and the child's determination to find him proved highly memorable and contagious. Photoshoppers took up Terry's cause – for better or for worse. Many online comments attached to blog posts about lostfrog.org, such as on Metafilter, a premier online discussion forum (see metafilter.com/mefi/36801), described how different forum commentators find the original flier “heartbreaking”, and that it “tears [them] up inside.” Comments also reveal that many people find the subsequent mutations of this image “touching,” and some even admitted to crying while they viewed the archive. Judging from weblog posts and comments, Terry's lost frog meme seems to have tapped into shared childhood experiences of lost or dead pets. Not everyone infected with this meme finds the mutated images to be sufficiently empathetic or respectful; nonetheless, even detractors — those who do not understand the meme or its popularity, or those who feel it was a cruel joke at the expense of an autistic young man — have become efficient hosts for and transmitters of what has become a highly successful meme. The longevity of this mutating meme is assured while the website archive remains online.

•  Networks and affinity spaces

The lost frog flier adapted by a distributed group of photoshoppers was not the first flier Terry had posted around Seattle streets. Jeff Sharman (2003) is credited with being the first to report on this original flier in his weblog. His blog post was text-based only, and focuses on adult reactions to Terry's lost pet announcement.

A poster next to the bus stop describes a lost pet, a frog named Hopkin. "Please call me at (206)... or call 911. My name is Terry Chen. My frog hopkin. I can't find my frog! Who stolen she or he." There are hand drawn pictures of both the profile and a front view.

A short security guard in a crisp police-style uniform walks straight up to the sign and studies it. She speaks into her CB radio, "It's dated August 20."

A voice crackles back at her, "...and it says something about a lost frog?"

"Yes."

"Okay, there are three more of them around the side of the building. Take them down."

The security guard picks at the tape carefully, like she's unfamiliar with the material that it's made from and doesn't want to damage it or damage herself.

Source : struat.com/here/002343.php (posted 31 May, 2004)

However, Terry's meme did not capture widespread attention until a scanned image of the second flier he posted around the city was uploaded to a photoshopping affinity space mediated by the internet. It also appears that this meme's infection rate gained momentum after it was reported on highly popular blogs like BoingBoing and discussion forums like Metafilter.

This lost pet meme seems to have attracted a fairly high coolness quotient as well, with contributors to the image bank described in a number of venues as “hipsters” (cf., Doctorow 2004). Even knowing about the meme during its early stages is regarded by some as cool, as the following comment in response to a blog post about lostfrog.org suggests: “ Slow poke, this originated on FipiLele about two weeks back. Posted by: riffola at November 7, 2004 04:23 PM ” (on blog.filmgoerjuan.com/archives/2004 /11/07/000256.php). Needless to say, the spread of mutating visual memes like “lost frog” are assisted greatly by internet-mediated networks and “cool hunters”.

Memes, digital divides, and literacy education

Why study memes?

There are any number of reasons for taking memes seriously, but chief among these is to arrive at a better understanding of cultural evolution, where “evolution” is understood in multidirectional growth and change terms, rather than in linear progression terms. In addition, memeticists identify three other significant purposes for studying memes. These are: (a) to develop and refine increasingly effective marketing strategies (cf., Aunger 2002); (b) to develop strategies for guarding against damaging memes; and (c) to better understand how the internet or particular uses of the internet – such as blogging – “work” by tracing meme development and distribution (cf., Adar, Zhang, Adamic and Lukose 2004).

(a) The advertising industry is built on the pursuit of successful memes: those that are catchy and easily remembered, that replicate at a fast rate, and are long-lived. For example, the dominance of the cola softdrink market by Coca-Cola has meant that the instantly recognizable white swirl on a red background that has always represented the drink has grown progressively larger and larger over the years so that today, drink dispensing machines are often simply marked in red with a giant white swirl to indicate the product inside (Brodie 1996). Studying and generating such “designer” memes to manipulate consumption patterns is regarded in many circles as a valid practice, but the analysis of memes as marketing tools does not add significantly to what is already known about marketing techniques, product “attractors” and patterns of consumption.

(b) Memes are not necessarily socially beneficial phenomena, and Brodie (1996) urges caution with respect to memes that become “mind viruses” which limit opportunities or that do harm to people. “Mind viruses” are memes that infect a mind without the mind being conscious of the infection. According to Brodie, mind viruses that remain unexamined in any metalevel or metacognitive way can limit a person's or a group's social and economic opportunities. Examples of harmful mind viruses can include profit mind viruses (such as those driving the Nigerian letter scam), thinness is beauty mind viruses (promoted on television and in fashion magazines etc.), and power and control mind viruses (such as those found in cults). Brodie is not all doom and gloom, however, and he challenges people to turn the power of memes and mind viruses to socially positive ends by consciously spreading potentially beneficial mind viruses to as many people as possible. His examples include The Hunger Project (thp.org), a non-profit organization committed to ending world hunger, which is based on networks of committed people and relatively small-scale grassroots projects, and not on more traditional centralized funding models and aid distribution strategies.

Brodie urges people to become more consciously aware of the memes they are infected with, why they in turn distribute certain memes and not others, and how the memes they do distribute play out in very concrete ways with respect to their sense of self-efficacy, their decision-making, the opportunities that become available to them (and to others), their interactions with others, and so on. Analysing mind viruses and meme processes and effects can help educationists, for example, understand more fully some of the complexities currently facing education with respect to policies and classroom practices involving new digital technologies.

(c) Eytan Adar and his colleagues at the Hewlett Packard Dynamics Lab have been studying what they call “information epidemics” spread via weblogs in order to better understand the “pattern and dynamics of information spreading in blogspace” (Adar et al. 2004: 1). Part of the susceptibility of blogs to memes lies in a widely shared goal among bloggers to be the first or among the first to post or comment on “the latest or the newest” (ibid.). Being “the first” tends to increase readership and status or general “coolness” as measured within the blogosphere. Adar and colleagues' research focuses on developing a ranking algorithm and visualization tool (iRank) for mapping the spread of information. That is, they identified which weblogs “serve as sources of information that later becomes widely linked to” (ibid.). To date, blog indices have relied only on hyperlink counts to judge the “popularity” or “authoritativeness” of a website, which gives little indication of the origins of a meme epidemic, or of how quickly or widely a meme epidemic has spread. The Hewlett Packard research team is most interested in tracing how meme epidemics begin, and their findings suggest that the most significant or influential people within the blogosphere are not those whose blogs are linked to most often, but rather, are “the people who cause epidemics in blog networks” and who are rarely popular bloggers themselves (Adar in conversation with Asaravala 2004: 1; emphases added).

Adar and his colleagues' work confirms that in addition to the characteristics of successful memes first identified by Dawkins – i.e., fidelity/“copyability”, fecundity and longevity – an important dimension of effective memes online is “coolness.” Thus, the fidelity of a meme is heightened when the meme itself is associated with being “plugged in” to the circuitry of new trends, developments, and analyses that mark one as an “insider” of a valued (sub)cultural group or affinity space (cf., Snyder's development of William Gibson's “cool hunting” meme, 2004). Participating actively in the dispersion of internet-mediated memes can confer coolness on a host, especially when the meme that is passed on by this host is refined and embellished in some skillful way (cf., the lost frog meme discussed earlier).

Ways and memes in education

Little, if any, of the meme literature discusses schooling; nevertheless, studying memes has much to offer researchers and educators with respect to better understanding ways in which units of cultural information concerning schools and pedagogy are propagated, why certain ideas connected to schooling are more easily replicated and have greater fecundity than others do, and how and why certain ideas are valued more (or less) than other ideas.

Perhaps the most obvious contribution the study of memes can make to schooling in general, and to literacy education in particular, is in helping students to develop metalevel understanding of the memes they are each infected with. At a very pragmatic level, studying memes can help students become less susceptible to hoax and scam memes delivered via email. Studying memes at school can also alert students to some of the personal costs associated with generating a very personal, original and highly successful meme. Costs can include heavy media attention, sustained invasion of privacy and loss of anonymity, hate email and fan email deluges, unkind spoofs, and so on, as Ghyslain (The Star Wars Kid), Gary (Numa Numa Dance star), and Jay (The Tron Guy), among many others, can attest.

Meme analysis can also include tracing where or how certain memes (or mind viruses) were most likely acquired; what effects these memes have on decision-making, mindsets and actions; the effects these memes may have on other people; and what ethical decisions need to made with respect to passing on, or not passing on, certain memes to other minds. It would be easy to argue that critical literacy approaches already do all this. However, analysing memes helps to concretize students' own active role in hosting and spreading memes and underscores the importance of being consciously aware of which “good” and “not so good” memes they themselves are hosting and passing on. Critical literacy in classrooms often stops at the analysis of power relations in texts (Knobel 1998) and rarely examines the dynamics of the selection and spread of particular ideas and pieces of cultural information over others.

Research suggests young people's literacy practices, technology use and social participation online is considerably more sophisticated and pedagogically valuable than what is often available to them at school (cf., Alvermann 2002, Gee 2004, Knobel and Lankshear 2004, Lankshear and Knobel 2003, Lankshear and Leander 2004, Suoranta and Lehtimäki 2004, Thomas 2004). New literacy practices like mutating multimedia memes – among others – serve as an important reminder that “coolness” is an increasingly significant part of what it now means to be technologically proficient and “savvy” within a range of online spaces and practices. This has important implications for curriculum design and calls for a more nuanced approach to new technologies in schools that does not assume all students will find all school uses of new technologies valuable, intrinsically motivating, or even interesting.

Meme analysis can equip students with ways of critiquing damaging mind viruses. The Nike sweatshop shoe meme and Fozzy's exposé of CNN's reporting on the toppling of Hussein's statue in Baghdad are effective models of using memes to help effect social and media critique. The kinds of memes propagated by the non-profit anti-consumerist group, Adbusters (adbusters.org), provide excellent additional models of the kinds of memes students can participate actively in as part of dynamic and distributed affinity spaces organized around socially-aware critiques of and responses to mainstream media, marketing, and consumption memes. Adbusters' ongoing corporate flag campaign was begun in 2001 and turned U.S. national pride memes on their head by replacing the stars on the U.S. flag with corporate logos and placing a billboard-sized version of this revised flag in Times Square in New York (see Figure 3). The billboard attracted international media attention and spawned a meme that generated a range of mutated flags that replaced, for example, the stripes of the flag with a corporate performance graph, or included Disney motifs in place of the stars, and so on (see Lankshear and Knobel 2003; and for more recent mutations, see unbrandamerica.org).

 

 

Figure 3: Adbusters' Unbrand America Campaign Flag ( Source : unbrandamerica.org)

Adbusters is very explicit about encouraging people to use memes as tools of social critique and as tactical responses to resisting stultifying corporate and political memes. For example, a recent Adbusters' email newsletter invites readers to use online discussion forums to make suggestions about how to boycott or revise the “coolness” meme attached to designer brands:

The New Boycott: Imagine a new lifestyle game – we play by spreading uncooling memes among our friends, getting them to ditch or switch brands. Can we get a few million people to live lives of playful resistance? Share your thoughts at the forum: http://adbusters.org (Adbusters 2005).

Mutating memes are especially interesting when viewed in relation to education. At a time when a body of literacy research and the mainstream media is bemoaning decreasing time spent by young people on reading and writing outside school settings (e.g., Pew 2001a, 2001b), innovations on multimedia memes that require hours of careful idea development and photoshopping, audio mixing and/or video remastering appear to be increasing. Literacy educators would be served well be analyzing mutating multimedia memes in order to identify why young people are willing to spend hours of their time participating in these memes. Indeed, a number of academic centers are taking mutating multimedia memes very seriously. Researchers with the Meme Media Laboratory at Hokudi University in Japan, for example, have spent the past decade exploring ways of blurring ideas, writing and software applications to produce mutating multimedia memes as vehicles for collaboratively generating new knowledge among academics (km.meme.hokudai.ac.jp/people/aran/ip/docs/aran/brochure.html). Non-profit community groups are beginning to look to the grassroots mobilization that occurs around mutating multimedia memes as a viable model for mobilizing commitment to social causes (e.g., Surman and Reilly 2003).

Examining meme processes and effects can shed important light on education rhetoric, curriculum policy mandates, and classroom practices involving new digital technologies. Policy can be understood as a powerful meme vehicle for shoring up particular mind viruses within a population. For example, policies that tap into current contexts and moral panics concerning education tend to be more successful at establishing themselves than other policies. President Bush's No Child Left Behind and Reading First policies in the U.S. are extremely influential mind viruses that have been widely propagated in the media and linked to powerful “illiteracy is dangerous to the national economy” and “illiteracy makes people jobless” memes, even though such memes have been debunked repeatedly over the past 25 years (cf., Coles 2003, Freebody and Welch 1993, Gee 1991, Graff 1979, Lankshear 1987). The No Child Left Behind and the Reading First policy memes and the messages they carry concerning declining education and literacy standards within the U.S. have contributed to high stakes testing practices by making educators and parents more susceptible to illiteracy panic memes. Analysing policy in terms of memes can help educators and others to understand more efficaciously the effects policy memes can have on teacher decision-making, classroom practice, resource selection, and conceptions of what it means, for example, to be a “successful” reader and writer at school.

Within the context of education and new digital technologies, examining the concept of “digital divide” as a meme is also a useful exercise for educators. It can open up alternative ways of interpreting “digital divides” by focusing attention on what the meme itself enables educators to “see” and “do” with respect to working towards ensuring access to equitable digital technological savviness and adeptness for all their students. Examining “digital divide” as a meme also requires attention to be paid to what ideas and pieces of cultural information are being replicated and passed on via this meme and how these in turn may actually contribute to shoring up a digital divide. For example, a recent study conducted in southern California compared students' access to new technologies in schools located in low income communities with students' access to new technologies in schools located in wealthy communities (Knobel, Stone and Warschauer 2002; Warschauer, Knobel and Stone 2004). Findings suggest all schools in the study were reasonably well-equipped with computers, internet access and other digital technologies. However, many teachers in the schools in low income areas significantly underestimated the access students had to computers outside school. These teachers tended to use students' “lack” of access to new technologies at home as an argument for focusing on basic technical skills during computer lab time, or for not using computers at all because these teachers felt they could not rely on students using time at home to complete computer-based tasks begun at school. A memetic analysis suggests that the digital divide meme within these schools was strong and may well have interfered with students' access to high-order uses of new technologies. Mobilizing efforts to address education inequities is without question a laudable goal; however, attention also needs to be paid to the effects memes generated in the course of addressing inequity may have on target populations.

Conclusion

Analyzing memes in terms of information and social relationships helps us to understand diverse types of memes that are mediated by the internet and how networked affinity spaces can help to spread different memes very effectively. Meme analysis can provide alternative perspectives on (and can lead to important grassroots responses) policies, concepts and practices that propagate potentially damaging mind viruses or that restrict learning and development in some way. Engaging in the serious study of memes can help educators to equip students with important strategies for identifying the memes that infect their minds, and for evaluating the effects these memes have on their (ethical) decision-making, actions and relations with others. A new digital divide in education may well concern an over-emphasis on the technical uses of new technologies at the expense of paying attention to the ways in which policies and the concept, “digital divide”, are themselves memes that shape what can and cannot be “seen” and “done” with respect to literacy learning and new technology uses within classroom contexts.

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