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Technology
How information and ideas spread on the Net


KARL HODGE IN LONDON


Ideas and information may replicate themselves in the same way viruses spread. Self-replicating packets of information were christened "memes " ((pronounced "meems ")by author Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene .And you will recognise them from countless urban myths,email "spams " and Net-- born heroes.
These are much more than just whispers being passed down a line. Religion and ritual are memes,as are fashions,political ideas and moral codes.They are copied from one person to the next,planting fundamental beliefs and values that gain more authority with each new host.Memes are the very building blocks of culture.Not every meme is a big idea,but any meme with the right stuff can go global once it hits the internet.

For anyone who has not seen the Hampster Dance (sic),its appeal is difficult to explain.A page of crudely animated hamsters singing the same few notes over and over (and over and over)would not get past the planning stage at most dot.coms.But for Thomas Lotze,a student at Harvard University,it was a mammoth web hit.He found the hamsters on a page that included porn banners and copied them over to his own smut-free site in February of 1999.Within two weeks it had attracted 13,000 hits,spawning a phenomena that lead to hundreds of imitators,an unofficial single by UK group the Cuban Boys and, that most American indicator of success,threats of legal action for breach of copyright.

The hampsters ' creator, Deirdre LaCarte,runs a company promoting the rodent ravers (they now live at www.hampsterdance2.com).In a medium where the replication and redistribution of information happens faster than you can say "I Kiss You ",the most unlikely things thrive.

Once memes may have travelled at a steady rate,taking hold with pernicious stealth.Now contagious ideas can be delivered direct to millions through news groups,mailing lists and websites.Dancing hamsters and Mahir do not hold the meme monopoly.It seems that just about any daft idea will do.

Cartoon frog in a liquidiser? If it has not already been in your mailbox it soon will be.Internet Cleaning Day?That comes around at least once a year. Potato-powered web servers? The best Internet memes replicate quickly,gaining authenticity and achieving mythical status as their familiarity grows.Endorsement by "legitimate " media sources cannot harm either,but why is the Net such a fertile breeding ground for memes?

British computer scientist Garry Marshall,author of a paper entitled "The Internet and Memetics " ((http: pespmc1.vub.ac.be Conf MemePap Marshall.html), believes that the Internet is a "full- blown memetic system " from the encoded network protocols it employs to the ways people use it.

Even the processes the Net uses to route information as individual packets are analogous to the passage of memes in the real world.How people communicate over the Net contributes,too,encouraging conversation that packs the most
amount of meaning into the smallest amount of space.The best Internet memes share the same characteristics as the best traditional memes.They can just be copied and distributed more quickly.

The plethora of urban myths and legends on the Net suggests that memes can be manufactured.Just include components that combine elements of truth with a catchyor "contagious " idea.

An email that recently came back into circulation titled Save Sesame Street asks respondents to petition the government against budget cuts to the PBS public TV network in the US.

Students at the University of Chicago started the meme back in 1995 when Big Bird and his chums faced real peril in the form of diminishing funds. While the financial issues were quietly resolved shortly after,the "petition " continues to replicate at a rate of knots -only the dates get changed.A case where direct action worked far too well.

Although many engineered memes are pranks or hoaxes, webmaster John Stoner is trying to spread a meme to encourage people to act more kindly towards one another.His site at www.generosity.org urges you to "do something good for someone,like pay the toll of the car behind you in the tollbooth, or buy a treat for the next person who walks in the door at the bakery ".You are then encouraged to leave a card for your beneficiary stating:"This is for you!Now it 's your turn:go do something good for someone else.Do it anonymously.Pass on this card."

The basic definitions for what constitutes a "meme " remain fairly constant,but debate rages about whether memetics is a science,a philosophy,a part of cultural studies or simply a buzz word to describe something we were all aware of anyway.
But by discussing the topic, even to question its validity,you spread it.Memetics is itself a meme...



Viral marketing

For advertisers who sweated bricks trying to reach a resistant audience of net users,"viral marketing " is the Holy Grail.One of the most high profile examples is Hotmail.

From an Internet start-up offering advertising supported free email,Hotmail signed up 12 million subscribers in its first 18 months.Hotmail succeeded by embedding a meme into every message sent,a single line at the bottomsaying:"Get your private, free email at http:www.hotmail.com ",turning every Hotmail user into a rep for the product.

Amazon.com 's affiliate programme is another success story.Affiliate users place links to Amazon in their pages,receiving a percentage of revenue for every sale that comes from linking through their sites.By letting you choose specific categories to advertise,even specific book titles,the site lets you tailor the advertising to the content of your own pages.

People do not like advertising,but they do like things that are free or entertain them.The Internet is,in principle,both free and entertaining.It also has the advantage of a structure that makes it easy for ideas to spread quickly.By "piggybacking " marketing messages onto messages people actually want,they become memes,multiplying invisibly and rapidly through the population.



LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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