How Meme Analysis Can Help Understand The Egyptian Revolution (Not)
A recent study in Revista de Comunicación offers an analysis of how narratives of the Egyptian revolution spread using the putative model of “meme analysis.” Alas, like every other study I have seen that seeks to apply the concept of memes to social and cultural analysis, it fails.
Summer Harlow’s “It was a ‘Facebook revolution’: Exploring the meme-like spread of narratives during the Egyptian protests” is, in the end, just a narrative analysis of a few English media texts with an effort to paste it over with the veneer of using “meme” to understand how the narratives spread.
This is only partly a review of this particular paper. I am actually using it to ponder the utility of “memetics” or “meme analysis,” an approach to culture too riddled with problems to get real traction, yet which refuses to die.
What’s a Meme, Anyway?
Meme is a term coined by the scientist Richard Dawkins in his 1979 book The Selfish Gene. It refers to a unit of culture, modeled on the concept of the gene, which travels and mutates much as genes do, and which Dawkins offers as a way to put the study of culture on a “scientific” basis.
It always gives me a pain when some physical scientist attempts to explain to social scientists how they should be doing their work. Usually, like Dawkins, they know next to nothing of the long intellectual history of social science, so they reinvent some 19th century concept and think they are bringing social science into the 20th or 21st century.
In this case, it is diffusionism. Looking at the spread of culture by examining how discrete cultural elements move from place to place and are adapted by people to new contexts is very old. It remains at the foundation of much of archaeology and historical linguistics.
A lot of contemporary work on social and cultural change also derives from understanding how cultural forms–ideas, goods, practices–enter into new contexts and are adapted to new uses. The forms change, but so do the contexts.
Essentially, this is what I’m doing in Connected in Cairo. In Chapter Six, for example, if you consider McDonald’s–the Golden Arches, the menu, the cooking and management practices–as a meme or meme cluster, I am explaining how it mutates. I’m also discussing how some memes break off from the cluster and infect other meme complexes, so that some traditional koshary restaurants start resembling McDonalds.
But the mere fact that units of meaning exist, that they are organized into systems, that these systems adapt to contexts, and that cultural systems and practices continue because they provide social advantages to various groups does not require the concept of the meme at all. Semiotic and sociological concepts we currently have are sufficient and getting better.
For mimetics to be useful, a way to understand the nature of cultural units, and the mechanisms of their reproduction and mutation needs to be articulated.
Brief Aside: Dawkins Is Kind Of An Idiot
Before I go into the actual problems with meme theory, let me say that I have a strong prejudice against “memes” just because they were originated by Richard Dawkins.Outside of his own field of specialization–where he is quite a brilliant author–he is an idiot.
His books on religion are so naive as to make anyone with even a modicum of understanding about the history and social context of religion cringe.
Essentially, Dawkins on religion reads very much like Evangelical Christian authors writing on evolution. Both offer a series of polemic attacks on a topic about which the authors have very superficial understanding but about which they care deeply.
I am offering my opinion on Dawkins in order to be transparent. I am not making an ad hominem argument against meme analysis, nor am I commiting the genetic fallacy of saying that the theory is wrong because it originated with Dawkins
So What’s the Problem With Memes?
Attempting to construct an actual “meme analysis” approach raises all kinds of conceptual and methodological problems.
First, it is very hard to see memes. A huge part of the problem is that, as Peirce recognized more than a century ago, meaning lies in the recognition of a sign (meme), not in the object, practice or event itself. And we have far more complex and carefully constructed analytical languages for talking about these than “meme” offers.
Actually, computer geeks get this. They have picked up the term “meme” and redefined it so as to make them trackable–but in doing so they cease to be the basis for a new way to study culture and merely a convenient way to study flows of texts (or sign-clusters) in digital media. I have an example in my mini-essay on “the man behind Omar Suleiman.”
Second, meme analysis tends to shift the unit of analysis away from people. One proponent of memetics says that if we “consider culture as its own self-organizing system — a system with its own agenda and pressure to survive — then the history of humanity gets even more interesting” (Kelly 1994: 360).
Actually, no. Been there, done that. The notion that cultural systems perpetuate themselves and that we need pay no attention to individual actors has been done to death. Look up diffusionism, functionalism, superorganic, structuralism…
The most interesting stuff in my own intellectual history has been the return to consideration of the agency of the actor in reproducing or transforming cultural practices in response to (social and cultural) perceptions of context.
Third, meme analysis needs to be able to explain complex relations between the memes and the context they adapt to–and which adapt to them.
Fourth, the most crucial parts of the evolution metaphor fail. There’s no equivalent for memes to DNA for genes, and the mutation rate would be extraordinarily high, and take place over very short periods, making it so chaotic and unpredictable as to be useless as a scientific tool.
So Why Bother?
So why do I download and read papers like Summer Harlow’s that hold out a promise of working out a mimetic project in one of my areas of specialization? Three reasons.
First, because open-mindedness is a scientific virtue. I try to cultivate it. Of course, skepticism is also a scientific virtue. The trick is to keep them in equilibrium. So where meme analysis is concerned, I “hope for the best, expect the worst.”
Second, because some very smart social scientists have expressed interest in meme analysis. For example, Mike Agar is one of my favorite anthropologists. I read everything he writes, even post-retirement papers he publishes to his web site. When we had coffee way back in 1998, just before I left for Egypt, he said he was doing a project trying to apply meme analysis to the spread of knowledge about HIV and AIDS.
I was like, seriously? Because if Mike Agar thought the idea of memes was worth thinking about, maybe I should not dismiss it so hastily.
Third, because social science advances as new metaphors emerge for understanding social phenomena. Meme analysis offers a new metaphor, a way of looking at culture in terms of natural selection. Meme analysis would have us look at cultural adaptation in terms of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, asking how these factors affect the capacity of memes to reproduce themselves by generating behaviors in their host (i.e. human social actors).
If the many problems facing it were solved, this approach might offer some interesting insights into how culture works that are not understood by the approaches currently in our theoretical and analytical toolkits.
Back To Egyptian Facebook
So far, though, no paper I have seen seeking to use a “meme analysis” (or “memetics”) approach broader than that I describe above, has succeeded in persuading me there is any value to the approach. Harlow’s paper is no exception, for at least three reasons.
1. It is a narrative analysis–but not very sophisticated. The author might have done better to have skipped the “meme” approach and delved a little deeper using the tools of discourse analysis and semiotics.
2. It sticks to a couple of English language sources. She’s not the only one doing this, just the most recent. Seriously, I am getting really tired of efforts to explore the role of new media in the Arab world by tracking English language Tweets, posts, text messages, etc. Scholarship, anyone?
3. Utterly superficial effort to apply meme analysis. The author seems to think meme analysis will help explain the “viral” spread of the narratives she analyses but she asserts rather than tracks actual spread. “Viral” is a lousy metaphor anyway; it is unidirectional and fails to attend to the agency of the people doing the spreading. I’m hoping the concept of “spreadable media” (Jenkins et. al. 2013) will replace it soon.
Here’s the abstract:
Considering online social media’s importance in the Arab Spring, this study is a preliminary exploration of the spread of narratives via new media technologies. Via a textual analysis of Facebook comments and traditional news media stories during the 2011 Egyptian uprisings, this study uses the concept of “memes” to move beyond dominant social movement paradigms and suggest that the telling and re-telling, both online and offline, of the principal narrative of a “Facebook revolution” helped involve people in the protests.
Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Harlow, Summer. 2013. It was a “Facebook revolution”: Exploring the meme-like spread of narratives during the Egyptian protests. Revista de Comunicación 12: 59-82.
Jenkins, Henry, Sam Ford, Joshua Green. 2013. Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: New York University Press
Kelly, Kevin. 1994, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World, Boston: Addison-Wesley