Catchy melodies, funny images, new fashion trends, quirky ideas, unique rituals and memorable dances float around the web each day, some spreading more quickly then others, grabbing our attention and inspiring us to click ‘share’. These “memes” as many of them are called are shared elements of culture that spread from one individual to another over the Internet. In order to better understand cultural “virality” Professor David Eilam of Tel Aviv University conducted a study to shed light on the building blocks of viral content and the different ways it’s used to preserve traditional rituals and practices.
The term “meme,” first coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, explains the way cultural information spreads. In his book, ‘The Selfish Gene,’ Dawkins suggests that just as genes transfer genetic properties from one individual to another, “memes” have a unique way of transferring cultural information by replicating and spreading from one mind to another. However, Dawkins’ research remained incomplete. Now Prof. Eilam and a team of researchers have found a way to offer both qualitative and quantitative methods to track memes, reinforcing Dawkins’ original theory that both genes and memes evolve in similar ways.
A viral meme is what you make it
According to Eilam’s research, memes appear and catch on somewhat randomly. “In culture, unlike in biology, there is really no reason why certain styles of music, architecture, or fashion prevail. As long as the acts are brief, short, simple, and used repeatedly, they have the potential to become a meme,” Eilam explains. In their study, the researchers also discovered that idiosyncratic acts, or distinctive expressions, which often occur before or after a ritual, are actually essential to how, and if, the meme catches on.
“The variability that we have in rituals has the same importance that variation has in biology. The basis of evolution is variability, and in a sense the same rules that apply to evolution in biology can also be applied to culture,” says Prof. Eilam. The idiosyncratic acts of individuals may eventually be repeated by others, becoming an integral part of a ritual, or essentially a new meme. “Now we have found a way to use the same tools that we use in biology to create a more solid understanding of cultural information,” explains Prof. Eilam.
Keeping with tradition means staying true to yourself
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To conduct their research, the team observed and examined a traditional wedding dance called the “Umsindo,” performed by the Zulu tribe in South Africa. In this dance the high kick, the only standard meme of the dance, was performed by all 19 participants. However all of the dancers engaged in additional idiosyncratic movements resembling free-style dance before and after executing the high kick. The researchers found that having the freedom to add unique movements made it easier to inherit the one main act because it allowed for self-expression and creativity.
The team also studied the traditional Jewish “tefillin” ceremony, in which Jewish men wrap a leather band around their arm as part of their morning prayers. Prof Eilam posits, “When we started to analyze this tradition, we didn’t see many differences. But after careful observation, we noticed that 70 percent of people actually did something different. There were only 11 acts out of 67 that all of the men actually did.” The fact that the men practicing this centuries-old ritual are able to express a degree of flexibility accounts for the preservation of the meme over so many years. It’s hard to adhere to 10 or 20 acts, and much easier to inherit just a few.
To bring things into a more modern context, this year the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge “broke the Internet” by challenging people to dump a bucket of ice on their heads to raise money and awareness. Everyone from Bill Gates to Justin Timberlake took on the freeze, but it wasn’t the fact that they poured a bucket of ice on their heads that made their videos go viral—it was their creative approach to this universal challenge.
So, the next time, you are giggling to a funny video, watching a viral dance, or passing around a hilarious photo on Facebook, you’ll know that in some way you are contributing to a wider sense of cultural replication and evolution. That should make you think twice before clicking ‘share’!
The research was conducted by Prof. David Eilam and Dr. Michal Fux of the Department of Zoology at TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences, together with Dr. Joel Mort, and Dr. Tom Lawson of Queens University Belfast.