How did this cat get over 40,611,000 hits on Youtube? More ominously, is this feline a threat to humankind as it propagates itself through cyberspace? It’s time to investigate the debate over the nature of memes. These infectious bits and pieces of culture spread information from one group to another. Viral marketers often believe that the videos they produce will get a million hits based on a formula. The strategy is designed around how to spread content, regardless of that content’s character. This seems to echo the sentiment of evolutionists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Susan Blackmore who see memes as “self-replicating life forms that spread via human consciousness.” In their view, memes can be parasites and humans are just passive carriers.
In contrast, Garret LoPorto, a media consultant for John Kerry and one of the speakers in “New Media, Old Politics,” demonstrated viral marketing very differently a few years back. He argued that support for Kerry went viral when niches of like-minded people used the campaign’s social media as tools to enhance their own identities and build networks around common concerns. Obviously Kerry didn’t win the election, but the seeds were planted. Barack Obama’s use of social media was a key campaign strategy that, some argue, was a decisive element in his victory.
Likewise, Henry Jenkins believes that memes aren’t the viruses as defined by Dawkins, but appropriated by individuals to promote their own self-expression. Memes don’t self-replicate in a cookie cutter fashion, but are remixed and take on new contexts each time that they are shared. Who controls who? Do memes control humans or do humans control memes? Furthermore, what drives this copycat phenomenon?
For more on the origins and spread of the Surprised Kitty check out Know Your Memes’ exhaustive research.