A lot of things happened at the end of the 20th century, but one of them was really unusual. Suddenly, a conversation could become universal in seconds. Memes – ideas, behaviors or styles that spread from person to person within a culture and evolve in an unpredictable and random way – found the perfect place to grow: the Internet.
Before the Internet became widely used, the media were the masters of the conversation. They filtered conversations and, by doing so, built our view of the world. But the expansion of the Internet blew up the pyramid of authority, making the world a place where everything can be shared, mimicked and copied. Memes never had such a fine environment to grow. Memecracy was born.
However, the concept of a meme is not new. The zoologist Richard Dawkins used the word in 1976 in his book “The Selfish Gene” when comparing genes and culture. According to him, both passed from one person to another through replication. Humanity evolved by copying others and that is exactly what memes do: they copy ideas, which spread among individuals without any kind of limitation on time or space. Although, to be an Internet meme the idea must change and evolve along the way. If the content does not change from one individual to another, it is considered viral.
According to Mathew Lieberman, psychology professor at UCLA, humans are information DJs: “We take in information and enjoy it but at the same time we also think about whom else might like it as well.” Stories act as a link between humans. We want to share these stories, and social media and other technologies intensified this effect.
What does this mean for communicators and journalists? We need to think differently as mass media is quickly transforming from “information media” to “emotion media.” Journalists are not information gatekeepers any longer but rather professionals who can filter or amplify. People around the world are “information groupies” excited but these quick, random and uncontrollable emotions. According to Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, the modern human being spends upwards of 11 hours out of every 24 consuming information. Information shaped as texts, instant messages, emails, RSS feeds, downloads, videos, status updates, tweets and, of course, memes.
So communication could be, to some extent, coming back to its origins. Philosophers like L.O. Sauerberg talk about the Gutenberg parenthesis to refer to what they think is a comeback of the oral culture. The emerging digital culture is making us partly return to practices and ways of thinking central to human societies before the advent of the printing press. Oral communication now simply uses social media as the voice box. These written chats are making possible the collective creation and the remix. Memecracy is leaving Gutenberg behind.