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Operationalization of Meme Selection Criteria

Methodologies to Empirically Test Memetic Predictions
Klaas Chielens Francis Heylighen
Ecco,Vrije Universiteit Brussel Ecco,Vrije Universiteit Brussel
Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels, Belgium Pleinlaan 2, 1050 Brussels, Belgium


This paper reviews a number of recent approaches to put memetics to the test of quantitative meas-
urability. The focus is on the selection criteria for the spreading of memes put forward by Heylighen
(1997), which include utility, novelty, simplicity, coherence, authority and proselytism. The general
hypothesis is that memes scoring higher on these criteria will survive longer and be more prevalent
than others. This can be tested by checking which story elements best survive a chain of person-to-
person transmissions ("Chinese whispers" game), by simulating the cognitive and social processes
that determine this differential survival and spread, and by correlating the score on the selection cri-
teria with the actual frequency with which a meme is encountered. In a pilot study using an Internet
survey, this method was applied specifically to virus hoaxes, which can be seen as paradigmatic ex-
amples of clearly delimited, self-reproducing messages.

1 Introduction
2 Meme Selection Criteria
In 1976 Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ to denote
the cultural equivalent of the biological gene, i.e. an The core idea of memetics is that the popularity or
information pattern that is being copied from person success of a meme is determined by natural selec-
to person. Examples of memes are jokes, ideas, tra- tion. At any moment, several memes are in competi-
ditions, rumors, fashions and chain letters. Each of tion for the attention of potential hosts and only
these information systems spreads by means of those memes will spread that are well-adapted to the
communication from one to several carriers. Thus, a socio-cultural environment formed by these hosts
successful meme can be compared to a cultural virus and the network of their interactions; the others will
that "infects" a growing group of hosts. Over the become extinct. This leads to the generic prediction
past decade, an increasing number of publications that “fitter” (i.e. better adapted) memes will become
has been devoted to memetics (e.g. Blackmore, more widespread than less fit ones. To operational-
2000 & Aunger, 2001), proposing explanations for ize this as yet very abstract (and to some degree
phenomena from viral marketing to consciousness tautological) idea, concrete selection criteria need to
and religion. be formulated that specify the degree to which a
However, the memetic approach has been criti- meme is adapted to its environment.
cized by many authors (Aunger 2001). Two major Several authors have tried to formulate principles
shortcomings can be pointed out: 1) it is hard to that govern the spread of information. For example,
define what exactly a meme is; 2) the theoretical Dawkins (1976), generalizing from the characteris-
statements of memetics are as yet too vague to be tics of biological evolution, listed the following
empirically verifiable or falsifiable (Edmonds, three characteristics for any successful replicator,
2002). The present paper proposes a broad method- and thus for a meme: copying-fidelity, fecundity
ology to address these problems. We will argue that: (number of copies made per time unit), and longev-
a) a memetic perspective can suggest concrete and ity (duration that any copy will survive). Working
non-trivial predictions; b) given a suitable memetic from a viral marketing perspective, Godin (2002)
unit of investigation, these predictions can be tested introduced the concept of the velocity with which
empirically. This should establish a firm operational ‘Idea Viruses’ spread from person to person. The
footing for memetics, allowing a comparison of the social psychologists Schaller, Conway & Tanchuk
strengths and weaknesses of different models, and (2002) focused on the communicability of a cultural
thus transforming memetics from a collection of trait. However, these characterizations of memetic
suggestive hypotheses into a true scientific disci- fitness remain very broad and vague: what is it that
pline. makes a meme more communicable, fecund, or
faster in spreading? They therefore offer little guid-
ance in making non-trivial predictions.

four verts than the one that is not. the more criteria a meme fulfils the subjects. "a Ja- Simple examples of such self-promoting memes are mayan boy encounters a bear". viral sentences that contain a copy instruction. 2003). The criterion. objective reality. 1998) focuses on the jority of the population is likely to make more con- ways memes adapt to their hosts. if one ans being fearful). or the internal properties of the meme it. Perhaps the most direct. self. throwing a rock is inconsistent with Jamayans being peaceful). etc. others did not (e. then tells what (s)he remembers of it to the next formation) person in line. and • novelty (the meme is sufficiently different from so on. Castelfranchi's crite. • conformity (the majority of hosts agree on the An elegant example of this approach can be found meme) in the psychological experiments of Lyons & Ka- • proselytism (the meme explicitly incites its hosts shima (2001. To the • coherence (the meme is consistent with the amusement of the participants. process. the different ele- • formality (the less context or background com. . and thus on received background information about what kind of the structure of the socio-cultural system. For example. story consisted of consecutive elements (e. is an example of a meme-centered opinion the other participants had about that. who told the final version to the experimenters. less important details tend to be left out) From a memetic perspective. who passes it on to the next one. Heylighen (1998) proposes a four-stage model would provide us with a set of guidelines for how to for memetic replication: 1) assimilation of a meme recognize and design successful memes. while others will not. 1996). these elements fit with the background knowledge The general prediction that can be derived from (e. In this work. 3 Methodologies for testing the pression to one or more other hosts. The different selection criteria are chain typically active at different stages of this replication process. The next four to 4. greater its overall fitness. Some of these memes will be fitter. are intersubjective: they depend on the relations and Before the experiment started. 1998]. 2) retention within the host's memory. etc. inter-subjective and meme-centered.g. who • utility (the meme contains useful or valuable in.). the process of transmission between Moreover. faster. 1997. climbing in a tree is consistent with the Jamay- this model is that. the one that fits in with people's existing depending on whether the selection depends on out. or by the ma- criteria (Heylighen. by a host. and what one. ideas is more likely to be understood and believed side. Thus. the first partici- to spread it further) pant read a made-up story about a non-existent tribe. show what distinguishes good memes from poor worthy) ones. such "he throws a branch at the bear". who would retell it to 3. it will also be fitter. A fit meme must 3. the one that is novel general criteria families are distinguished: objective. of the meme. A different list of up by an authority (such as the pope). retained. that the old game of "telephone" or "Chinese whispers".1 Creating a memetic transmission pass all stages. The last people the Jamayans were supposed to be. the results of such a game may • authority (the source is recognized as being trust. in the sense that some memes will be successfully assimilated. The first four of these are subjective and therefore the Jamayans. erwise equivalent injunctions the one that is backed nisms of cultural transmission. proselytism.g. language or some other medium. of two oth- ria (2001) focus on the social and cultural mecha. expressed or transmitted. will attract more attention and therefore spread subjective. 3) expression by the host through behavior. At the end of the transmission chain. This participant 1 would retell the depend on the host: what is useful or novel for one story to participant 2. all participants had forms of communication between hosts. and 3 person may not be so for another one. the individual subject or host and therefore to be memorized and expressed. the more important it is to memes. 1997. ments of such a story can be seen as individual municating hosts share. and therefore ness of a meme. spread more far and wide. that depends only on the meme itself. all other things being equal. In their game. 4) transmission of the ex. For example. Different paradigms exist to study the spreading of The following is a selection of the most important memes. the criteria. Some of as ‘Copy me’ or ‘say me’ (Hofstadter. Other authors have started listing more concrete meme scores higher on one of these criteria than and detailed criteria that together determine the fit. At each stage selection criteria there is selection.g. the differences gen- knowledge that the hosts already have) erally make the end story almost unrecognizable • simplicity (since complex memes difficult to from the begin story. "he climbs in a tree". in the express the meme explicitly) sense that they survive the many omissions and • expressivity (the meme is easily expressible in the variations during the consecutive transmission better available languages or media) than others. the final already known memes) version is compared to the original story. if valid. interactive one is criteria of this model[Heylighen. can be easily operationalized: in which one person tells a story to another one. Thus. another meme.

peaceful. 1997). e. This trust is likely to be spread than the less disgusting ones. As a first details or embellishments that did not affect the test. Moreover. agents are represented by emotional components of this value judgment. explicit reports (novelty and for- number of systematic effects that appear to confirm mality). emotional and social dynamics that gov. From the messages. One of the metic fitness. There have been many agent. After several such experiments under varying the receiving agents are likely to already know and conditions. the actual frequency with which a given legend which the first one to explicitly speak about memes is encountered on the web. in how far high scores on the criteria predict me- ern meme transmission among humans.g. The and the memes used in these simulations are gener. 1985). a minority opinion. work with rather vague and variable memetic units: ample. 4) conformity: when been able to replicate the most important quantita- the participants were told that the majority of them tive results from the aforementioned study of Lyons believed that the Jamayans were. To achieve this. by considering the plausibility of a do not just copy a message (with or without errors). others will be made more intuitively or emo- but actively "reinterpret" messages. more likely to be left out. 3. When comparing different urban legends nication to the spread of that activation from agent that contained an element of disgust (e. the reinforcement of inter-agent links "story elements". A preliminary simula- tion (Van Overwalle. the collection of existing memes (e. However. the general heading of "utility". Heylighen & Heath have started a meme. measure. they found that the represents the degree of trust of the one in the in. 2) novelty: elements that while amplifying signals that are confirmed by the participants assumed were already known by the many different sources (conformity) or that activate others were more likely to be left out.g. the agents person is to pass on the story to someone else).2 Simulating meme evolution cies A second paradigm for quantitative memetic inves. the story to agent via variable inter-agent connections. This approach may allow the selection criteria to be derived from the dynamics of such a distributed 4 Virus hoaxes as paradigmatic connectionist network. and commu. A different paradigm for memetic investigations is tigation is simulation..g. only selection criterion to emerge (i. simple neural networks that learn from experience. e. Heath et al. they & Kashima (2001) concerning the probability with were more likely to leave out elements inconsistent which inconsistent or novel story elements are repli- with this fact than if they thought that this was only cated in their "Chinese whispers" game. urban leg- based simulations of how cultural replicators can ends). more disgusting variations typically were more formation received from the other. 3) simplicity: in-built rewards or punishments (utility). "traits" or "patterns of activation". through the increase of trust builds authority for the As such they do not satisfy Dawkins' requirement of sending agents. Best.g.g. a statistical analysis of the story ele. of (e. Heylighen & Heath. or the likeliness that a may well be Gabora (1995). agree with. rather than have them pos. The of a man who discovers a dead rat in the cola bottle strength of the connection between two agents he has just been drinking from). making it less important for them to ments that remained at the end of the game found a transmit detailed. Bell & Sternberg (2001) used this method imposed by the programmer) from such simulations to investigate a number of properties that fall under is conformity: the more agents already host a meme. study can then look for correlations between actual ally too simple to be used as models for the higher or apparent success rates and different criteria to test cognitive. and other sources..3 Analyzing existing meme frequen- 3. this simulation (Van Overwalle et al. and tells them which information copying-fidelity or the general criticism that memes . thus confirming two tion from that agent is confirmed by own knowledge components of a broader utility criterion. e. The learned on the basis of the degree to which informa. Boyd & Richerson. 2004) A shortcoming of the previous studies is that they indeed suggests that this can be achieved. based on their tionally. For ex. importance or value of the information contained in Van Overwalle. 2004) has story line tended to be left out. same applied to plausibility.e.g. tively simple emotion whose strength is easy to tion over the nodes in such a network. by reacting with pleasure to an implied own subjective experience with other agents and opportunity or fear to an implied danger.g. spread of activation along exist- four of the above criteria: 1) coherence: elements ing connections will automatically attenuate incon- inconsistent with the background information were sistent (coherence) or complex (simplicity) signals. Some of these estimates will be made ra- to investigate more realistic models in which agents tionally. focused on disgust because this is a rela- A message then corresponds to a pattern of activa. memes ited to some degree ad hoc. without being Heath. Utility is a very the higher the probability that the other agents will broad category that includes any estimate of the be infected as well (cf. meme. together with an estimate of their success spread through a population (e.

bandwidth guage speaker. clarify its meaning. the same hoax tizes the attention and computational resources of its can be evaluated by a large number of people. the statistical cor. such as the participant's level tion” that are actually harmful (such as erasing es. the following different mutations of the hoax. it is necessary to determine the ex. of schooling or degree of knowledge of the language sential program files). tain a statistically significant score. This The criterion of novelty was renamed to original- determines the number of copies of the hoax that ity. In the introduction to the followed. survey each of these criteria was described so as to tions (Bennett 2003). utility. and only be measured subjectively. that text. making a taxonomy of its different muta. that parasi. on the internet. A possible hypothesis is that respon- 2) They can create panic among naïve computer dents with different levels of background knowledge users by making them falsely believe that their accord a different order of importance to the criteria. while readers focus on the hoax instead of other activities. but it has direct social 5 A pilot study of virus hoaxes and economic applications. Kincaid or Gunning-Fog readability tests. energy. criteria were repeated with every question in the two or three distinguishing strings in the hoax’s text survey. are easy to analyze. of the hoax. Simplicity. The which the scores are averaged. a virus hoax is an strongly a hoax satisfies a certain criterion. From the list above. By comparing the different The criteria that were chosen to be included in the sources it is not only possible to find the most survey needed to be easily understood by the aver- prevalent form but also to compare the strength of age participant. It is important to make views is that there is less risk of answers being bi- sure that enough different hoaxes are analyzed in ased by social expectations. capitalization and grammatical or spelling errors. The short descriptions of the Given the canonical form of a common variation. To ob- illustration of a self-replicating message. both on webpages or in newsgroups. McAfee. the hoax should be objectively ‘new’.g. and other resources. Thus the study of how virus hoaxes spread is not only scientifically interesting. hoaxes. Authority The scoring of the selection criteria can happen in probed in how far the presumable source of the in- two ways: objective and subjective. Entering these signature strings in a search simplicity was tested with the following question: engine such as Google or AltaVista will not only “How easy is it to understand this message? Is it find documents that contain this signature. which are threefold: Certain demographical data can also be gathered 1) Virus hoaxes often propose methods of “protec. computer is showing symptoms of a virus. For example. as were the values (on a five-point scale) can be found that determine a unique "signature" of that could be entered for the criterion. a number of specialized databases maintained by the participants can read and re-read the questions different organizations. To test this memetics hypothesis. As such. Moreover. "This dangerous virus was first an- nounced by IBM and Microsoft") appeared trust- . for by looking at a very clear-cut example of a cultural example. in order to avoid a confusion with the idea that still reside on the net. appear in a participant’s mailbox. as there is no time-pressure in a survey. This could be used criteria were selected: novelty. can be measured objectively by applying linguistic The last operational approach tackles this problem techniques directly on the hoax text. including the cess) of a hoax. act content of the hoax text. through the surveys. after recipients in order to maximally multiply itself. a hoax containing grammatical errors 3) They produce economic damage by making their may lose credibility with a native speaker. Hoaxes are available in Moreover. being was performed in which 6 hoaxes were scored on 6 pieces of text. To be able to makes it possible to represent the hoax as it would measure the degree of spreading (and thus the suc. Other criteria can recipients for a non-existent computer virus. to recreate the evolutionary path that the hoax has authority and proselytism. simplicity. For example. or the Virus hoaxes are email messages warning the average sentence or word length. As an extra control- ever wider expansion of electronic communication ling factor.lack a clear definition and are difficult to analyze. One of the advantages of surveys over inter- this hoax can be determined. and. Using computer display order to obtain statistical significance. As this particular topic is closely linked to the relation between the score of a hoax on one of the Internet. these errors may not be noticed by a foreign lan- which results in a loss of time. but tell hard to grasp or is it pretty clear and simple? (1: us how often these strings appear together on the Very Hard / 5: Very Easy)” internet. can be measured with the aid of Flesch replicator: a virus hoax (Sophos). normally To test this general methodology. criteria by 195 participants (Chielens. Certain criteria formation (e. these para- sitic email messages are clearly delimited. the same criteria can also be scored by a points us at the possible dangers of these virus group of experts. by holding a survey urging them to forward this warning to as many in which participants are asked to indicate how other people as possible. such as Symantec or and the hoaxes as needed. a small pilot study undergo replication without variation. 2003). an online survey was chosen to collect the criteria and an estimate of the degree of spreading of data.

M. non-trivial and her hard drive. danger. whereas a hoax similar to Probably the most serious criticism of memetics is older hoaxes will be found out more quickly. it is emit. as phisticated memetic models. 2004. a hoax to see whether it would lose in virulence. while it can indirectly confirm and psychological processes that govern their the false threat. (2002) did with some of their urban ria on a scale from one to five.. the specified file exists on his or produce to a number of concrete. S. (Ito et Reviewing a of benefit. Proposing a solution to a potential danger number of partial and preliminary studies. Darwinizing Culture: The timal score for the most critical criteria.. This allows us to finds that. because people simply do not take it se- . for other researchers to build more realistic and so- nificant. using may help the hoax to spread as it gives the recipient data about real memes or simulations of the social a feeling of control. 1. damaging the hoax's credibil- ity. but more legends. much of a good thing. this paper has shown how memetic hoax's instructions for tackling the problem and theories can be operationalized. A hoax that consists merely of ‘please pass ford/New York. as when the recipient carries out the transmission. indeed. as After the participants had scored each of the crite. Journal of Memetics . Specifically for hoaxes. This is probably due to the lack of data. a phenomenon called "negativity bias" erase any clear correlation. R. the spread of ru- higher benefit rating than hoaxes which only carried mors. ficients to determine the relation between frequency cally urge recipients to pass on the warning to all and criterion scores.) (2001). Models for Interacting Populations your hard disk and damage your computer is already of Memes. The Meme Machine Ox- hoax. the warning that a virus will erase Best. Utility was split up in a negative compo. Another reason variations scored lower in disgust. another plausible explanation for the perspective. (Ed.worthy. One of the strongest correlations was unlike danger or proselytism. that it has not as yet produced any empirically veri- other strong correlation was found for the criterion fiable predictions (Edmonds. Heath et al. riously (Hofstadter. or of parasitic email messages. This would mean that they were already close to the op. The criterion of proselytism (called further research would either need to use a more "replication pressure" in the survey) is a particularly fine-grained statistical method than correlation coef- salient characteristic of virus hoaxes. and the only plausible be taken to protect against the virus. It is our hope a warning. Aunger. for this split is that negative information normally If most hoaxes in the sample would cluster produces a stronger mental reaction than positive around the peak value for a criterion. 1996). adding that it moreover may Models of Information Transmission. newsgroups. and to gather the de- it is difficult to find reliable correlations when there tailed empirical evidence that will be necessary to are only 6 elements to compare. An explanation for the fact that benefit and were calculated. An. (2002) in their investigation of hoaxes always warn of the great danger that may disgusting urban legends: for the most successful befall the ignorant recipient of a virus. the average scores legends. 1998).Evolutionary frightening enough. this would information. they found that it was impossible to create rarely also mention the positive measures that can a more disgusting version. and correlated with the frequency novelty still produced good correlations may be that with which the hoaxes appeared on the web or on these are less critical properties for virus hoaxes. from http://jom- make the hoax lose its credibility. a possible explanation for this correlation is that when 6 Conclusion a new type of hoax appears. it is not immediately recognized as a fake. with immediate applications in possible ‘solution’ were indeed considered to have a domains such as viral marketing. Hoaxes that carried a warning with a testable predictions. since these found by Heath et al. Oxford University Press (Origi- me on’ phrases will not be passed on due to the lack nal work published 1999) of content. (2000). (1997). which typi. A similar effect was nent. since they otherwise References wouldn't have appeared in hoax databases. benefit.html likely that a too high proselytism score will not lead to a higher replication rate but to a ridicule of the Blackmore. convince other scientists of the value of the memetic However. For example. This fits in with still has "room for improvement" on these dimen- Godin's idea of the "filled vacuum" (2002): a meme sions. Similarly. lack of correlation may be that the hoaxes used were by definition rather successful. 2002). so that a typical hoax found with the novelty criterion. so that a Status of Memetics As aScience Oxford/New significant further increase in the score would be too York. Oxford University Press. can diffuse most easily in a niche where no similar memes are present yet. and a positive one. or artificially vary the score of their friends and acquaintances.cfpm. Re- make you blind and put your house on fire would trieved October 31. To tackle this problem. that this general approach will provide inspiration The other correlations were too weak to be sig.

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