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The Meme Dream Machine

2012 October 30
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YALSA’s upcoming YA Literature Symposium will explore the future of young adult literature. The symposium begins on November 2nd, but we wanted to get a head start here at The Hub, so we’re devoting October to 31 Days of the Next Big Thing. Each day of the month, we’ll bring you forecasts about where YA literature is headed and thoughts on how you can spot trends and predict the future yourself.

Who was the first weather person to call snow “the white stuff?” When did the phrase “I know, right?” become the nearly universal signifier of assent? Why haven’t I received my check from a Nigerian prince? Why cat videos?

What these items have in common is that they are all potentially memes. What does that mean? As defined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, a meme is “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” Using the vocabulary of genetics, Dawkins compared memes to genes because the meme’s function is to replicate and survive through generations. The “fittest” will survive and the weakest are weeded out the same way that adaptations that improve a species survival will be passed on to offspring.

In many ways a meme is like a virus or a parasite. They rely on a vector for transmission (a sneeze or blood if you’re thinking of a virus; a cat video or spam for a meme). They infect a host when you either breathe in the microscopic snot of the sneezer or sit in front of your computer watching the Invisible Children fundraising video. Congratulations! You are now infected. Feel free to sneeze on others or forward the video to me (don’t do that, I beg you). Thus, the cycle begins anew.

Why do memes exist or, better yet, what is their function? It turns out that they are really functional. For example, would you know to look under your car in the mall parking lot for a hidden slasher if you hadn’t got that e-mail warning you? In actuality, they are extremely important in the transmission of language and culture. It may seem a bizarre way to put it, but we are infecting our children’s brains with rules, norms, values, language, and so on by using memes. Children are biologically equipped brain-wise to soak up as much of this information as they can in a very short time, which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they can learn a whole lot in a short time, but, on the other hand, they are much more susceptible to parasitic memes that are counter-productive — just as I’m susceptible to wasting hours in front of a computer screen watching videos from FAIL blog.

What does any of this have to do with YA literature? Well, we’ve been exploring what will be the Next Big Thing for a month now, and it seems to me that trends in YA literature work in a very similar way as memes. Just like everyone else, I can’t explain very well how or when or where the Next Big Thing will come from, but I think it is a safe bet that the transmission will follow a similar path to that of most memes: one person will be infected, they will infect another, and so on.

The Internet is a lean, mean, meme-transmitting, dream machine. If genetics had an Internet to transmit successful genes, I would be an 8-foot tall supergenius who can’t help but earn lots of money and be foolishly happy at all times. The Internet, and social media in particular, give humans (the recommendation machines) a platform to spread our memes out across the world faster and broader than ever in history. We’ve always had memes. It’s just a lot easier to type a Facebook status update or post a picture to Tumblr than it is to carve a dirty joke into a cave wall or a tree trunk.

— Joel Bruns, currently reading Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht

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