Monday, October 30, 2006


Memes and lists, and blogs that go bump in the night

I'm used to seeing words shift meanings. Sometimes I'm happy with the shift; sometimes I'm not thrilled but can accept it quietly; sometimes I only let the old meaning go with kicks and screams and vehement protests. With some, even, I've not yet conceded the change, and I hold onto the old meaning with the iron fist of pedantry.

But they're always old words that are changing. Perhaps what they once meant has been lost entirely with alternative usage over time (does anyone use "terrific" in a negative sense any more?). Perhaps they're too similar to other words, and people get confused ("noisome" has nothing to do with noise). But they're always old words; the change happens over a significant period of time.

What's a significant period of Internet time, though? What might have been a century of language usage when we wrote letters and read magazines has been compressed to just a few years with email and blogs. And for the first time I see a rapid meaning-shift for a fairly new word: "meme".

A meme (pronounced "meem", like the word "seem", not like the French word "même") is a unit of cultural information, such as the folk song that's handed down from parents to children, a social custom like shaking hands when meeting someone, or a style of dress. The word dates from only 30 years ago, when Richard Dawkins used it in this sense, and it's widely used so in behavioural science.

And yet its meaning has already changed — its Internet meaning is much fuzzier. Blogs have turned it into a list of answers to a list of questions, to a list of information about yourself, and, ultimately, into any sort of list. As such, it's become a meaningless term. "I tagged Jane with a meme," just means, "I sent Jane a pointless exercise to post in her blog." Some of them may be fun to do, but few are very interesting. Far from carrying any real cultural information, they just propagate some random stuff... it's basically become the blog equivalent to a chain letter. Ick.

I guess what bothers me about this is the distortion of a scientific term, with real meaning, into a pop-culture term, without. And I'm not sure where this blog entry is going with it... some of them are diamonds, and some are just rocks.

OK, so here's my "useless list" challenge:

  1. How many pianos play in Beethoven's piano trios?
  2. How long did the Hundred Years' War last?
  3. What unique thing do the Echidna and the Platypus have in common?
  4. What is the real title of The Beatles' "White Album"?
  5. Where is Christmas Island?
  6. Which is correct?: "The yolk of an egg is white." or "The yolk of an egg are white."
  7. Who's on first?
  8. Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?

Ceci n'est pas un(e) meme. Don't "tag" anyone with this. I don't forward chain letters of any kind.


Ann said...

2. 116 years: 1337-1453

5. It's a non-governing territory of Australia in Indian Ocean, about 300 miles south of Jakarta, Indonesia.

6. Is.

7. Starting formation: squared set.
Designated couple walk straight ahead into their opposite couple's spot and turn back. All others will slide one spot in a circle toward the two vacated spots, then re-form a squared set.

The Ridger, FCD said...

1- I'm pretty sure 3

2- 116 years

3- they're mammals that lay eggs (monotremes)

4- I don't think it actually has a name

5- in the Indian Ocean, pretty near Indonesia, if I recall

6- actually, is "the yolk is yellow".

7 - yes, Who is on first

8 - General and Mrs Grant

Barry Leiba said...

Commenters: Thanks.

See this post for my answers.