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Friday, 30 March 2012

The lean, meme, writing machine...

I've been reading a book titled 'Epic Win for Anonymous' by Cole Stryker recently.
It's a, sort of, history of the Anonymous Hacker group and their rise to... notoriety, lets say... through the 4chan image-board network.
The book is a decent read if you like this type of thing, but that's not what this post is about. You see the first few chapters of this book explore memes in general and internet memes in particular.

Anyone heard of LolCatz? 

That's probably one of the most widespread Internet memes 'alive' today, and it was birthed from the rather fetid hive-mind that is 4chan.

Please don't be too tempted to go have a look though, as there are certain things you just can't un-see...

Anyway all this talk of memes got me thinking about how much our current memes are imbedded in today's writings, especially fiction writing. I think a lot of modern memes are present both in the finished stories and in the way we are now taught, or told, to write.

First off I suppose I should attempt to explain exactly what a meme is. I actually did a bit of research for this and asked a few different people what they thought a meme was. Some had no clue, and some (generally younger people) said pretty much what the book told me they would say, e.g. they tried to explain a meme to me in terms of the 'Internet Memes' they had heard of, and although not completely wrong it is a rather blinkered view of the concept.

So here goes, an explanation of memes in my own words (so possibly not 100% compos mentis), but:
    • A meme is a self-perpetuating idea that mimics the behaviours of genes, and can spread like a thought-virus.
    • It can be passed from on mind to another through direct speech, the written word, or imagery, and just like a virus it generally has a life-cycle.
    • Really successful memes can permeate a society’s thinking so thoroughly that they become part of our popular culture and may be present in every-day thinking and behaviour without us ever recognising or knowing it.

    Yes, memes can be very powerful and are all around us. It's a fascinating subject and, perhaps apart from the Internet, books are the single most virulent breeding ground for memes, and of course have been from long before the term was coined. So a book can indeed be a 'Meme Machine.' In the wider sense even religions and governmental structures can be thought of a memes.

    I took a look at some of my favourite books with a view to looking for memes, and as expected they were full of them. One of my favourite classics ‘Alice in wonderland’ has even managed to spawn at least a couple of memes that I think have permeated our culture. After all, doesn’t everyone know what “going down the rabbit-hole” entails? The phrase has been replicated in practically any media you can think of.
    Another of my favourite books, ‘Vurt,’ repeatedly attempts to spin its own memes, although it falls back on an older, more well-worn and entrenched, one towards the end of the story.
    Are you familiar with the concept of ‘the sleeper,’ ‘the dreamer,’ or the ‘life is just a dream’ meme? Yes that concept  is also a meme. Most are.

    By now you may be wondering what the difference between a meme and a good old-fashioned cliché is? Well, I’d say the whole concept of a ‘cliché’ is simply another meme in itself. Are you confused yet?
    Memes can be clichéd, but they can also be much more powerful and stealthy than that.
    Most story concepts are derived from memes and the whole ‘Heroes Journey’ structure can be thought of as a classic story-telling meme, because as we all know ‘there’s nothing new under the sun;’ another meme. They define how we structure a story, and help us chose the turn of phrase we use, they even subvert our plots into propagating their own message, and we do all this without every really realising it. It’s what makes books from different cultures and different times... well different, but somehow the same.

    But memes aren’t just present in the finished story, I think they are also becoming increasingly prevalent in the advice we receive when writing and planning any modern day book, whether fact or fictional based.
    As I said, memes have always existed, but I think the Internet has vastly influenced the way we now write, or are now taught to write. And the Internet is perhaps the largest single Meme Machine on the planet.

    So what’s my point?
    Well, I’m not going to argue that memes won’t have an effect our writing, of course they will. The world we live in and our experiences of it will affect our writing, and so it should. That’s how writing stays relevant and evolves. It’s also at least partly Why We Don’t Start Each Word With A Capital Letter Anymore... and that’s a good lead in to my point:
    Memes have helped craft modern story telling techniques: on the whole I’m all in favour of this.
    The evolution of writing has to keep in tune with its contemporary culture, and many of the ‘rules,’ ‘tips,’ and ‘tricks’ that are now employed in today’s writing have evolved through means of memes. But, just like cells, it’s in the nature of memes to evolve by means of mutation, and also like cells it’s something that happens, largely unnoticed, over time.
    The Internet is arguably speeding up this evolution, and although some avenues will undoubtedly dead-end, others will form the basis of tomorrows writing.
    What this currently means for the wannabe writer using the internet as a tool, is that they are constantly bombarded with often conflicting advice.
    Memes fight each other until the strongest one wins out. I believe this is where most, if not all, the familiar advice comes from, and this isn’t just an internet thing. As the advice comes into vogue people regurgitate it  in ‘how to’ books, they pass it on by word of mouth, in their critiques, and in innumerable other, sometimes almost imperceptible, ways.
    If I have a gripe about any of this it’s that memes propagate by people blindly passing on what they were told. So suggestions evolve into rules, then you are punished by the meme for not following and propagating it. Is this why all new writers are told to write ‘properly’ by the majority of the ‘how to’ books and by their Internet savvy peers?  Remember all this advice is being given in a world where most of the blockbuster fiction doesn’t seem to adhere to these same rules. This may possibly be because readers don’t know much, if anything, about these ‘writing rules’ the meme machine has imposed upon our particular little sub-culture.

    So what do you think of memes? Are they a force for change, for good or evil... or simply a part of how human thinking has always learnt and evolved?

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