Friday, 27 August 2010

Victims of memetic selection: Pee Lady and the Purrminator

Whilst writing a condensed summary of Susan Blackmore's "The Meme Machine" is still a future aspiration I have nonetheless mentioned some of it's ideas ('memes' if you like) in passing, where they apply to otherwise unrelated blog entries. This quick piece, however, is purely a rumination on memetics in contemporary culture.

In an evolutionary anthropological discussion of the origin of memes, over 2 million years ago in our hominid ancestors of the time, Blackmore considers that it would have been very difficult to know what memes to select for, from a point of view of the (selfish) genes. Once imitation of ideas (i.e. memes) existed in a population, they would spread and change host behaviour at a rate orders of magnitude more rapid than genes could hope to (through survival of the fittest individuals). Hence human genes only provide vague heuristics for meme selection (i.e. what things humans find intrinsically interesting/captivating). Here are some of apparently inbuilt selection criterion:

  • Copy the most obvious memes (simplest, most fully understandable, least likely to be miss-copied).
  • Copy the most popular memes (others finding it worthwhile indicates memetic usefulness, best not to be left out just in case).
  • Copy memes for: sex, food, winning battles, gossip (each has strong genetic survival advantages for our social hominids).

Fashion sense, joke telling/humour, altruism, and religiousness are largely products of run-away sexual selection for mates that are good at spreading memes in general. This is due to the selection pressure applied by memes on genes, and appears to have had the same effect on hominid brain size as Peahen's sexual selection has had on Peacock's tails. But I digress; the point is that humans have these built in hot topics with universal appeal.

+ 'Pee Lady' (AKA Wendy Lewis): recently gained notoriety for urinating on a World War II memorial [1,2].
[From the]
This non-event only got so much media coverage because there was CCTV footage of the (frankly inadvertently) sinister act (perfect for TV news and article photographs. Also, the helpful camera operators called down a rapid response police team that caught her in the heinous act of fellating some bloke. Add to this her 'colourful' past that made her a perfect instant target for hate from the oldest generation, and her having to attend a court hearing to face charges.

If one is honest, this fiasco says very little about the individual concerned, much more about the structure of our society in general, and more still about us human apes in a media dominated world. Drunken individuals relieving themselves on the streets is par for course in our society of binge drinking, and to be fair she appeared to be ducking down behind part of the memorial for cover, oblivious to it's nature (a generation gap thing). Unlike the fresher student who pee *on* the wreaths of a memorial in 2009 [3]. Again the perpetrator was unlucky enough to be caught on camera (a still shot that time), hence why it is the only other case one will find newspaper articles on, despite a reported total of 4 similar cases in the last year.

One cat see how several of the aforementioned buttons of the human psyche are pressed by this gossip worthy 'faux pas' (with sexual connotations) and a resulting threat of social confrontation that is all the more easy to comprehend thanks to pictures.

[From the linked to Sun article]
+ 'Cat Woman' or 'The Purrminator' (AKA Mary Bale): you have probably already head about [4,5]. She became the centre of rabid attention from media hounds and cat loving nutters the world over when her story went viral. For some reason the Coventry lady (who happens to work in the RBS in my home town) had a momentary lapse of sanity while walking down a street. She petted a friendly cat before lifting a green wheelie bin lid and pushing it in (off it's perch on the adjacent wall). The cat was found unharmed 15 hours later, while the woman still has an inordinate burden of stress to cope with.

Again, this event wouldn't even have made the local rag if it hadn't have been for the video footage. I'm sure that, on any given day, crazy neighbours get away with thousands of pranks far more malicious. However, this piece had the makings of a classic, lol-cats type, internet meme, though it's views on Youtube pale in comparison to the air time given afforded to it as TV and paper news the world over jumped on the band wagon.

One should be mindful of the anthropic nature of 'news' stories and the over-reactive repercussions they often bring, but it was not my primary intention to condemn such things, like the earnest commentators launching into a diatribe on societal decay. I merely hold them up as illustrations of our function as 'meme machines'. The cat theme links me smoothly to my recent discovery of "" and it's interlinked cousin sites...

+ The memetic equivalent of crack:
It's interesting how the internet has allowed the creation of entities (sites) increasingly able to dispense with the limitations of a defining pretense or purpose, in favour of purely the most riveting bits. For example, I'm an avid follower of "Boing Boing", which is a step up the instant interestingness scale from earnest news sites thanks to it's brief entries and freedom to publish whatever frivolously cool stuff the blog authors manage to find. However, they still limit themselves by being as truthful as possible and even banging on about boring digital rights issues on occasion.

[from icanhascheezburger]
Mainstream online advertising has created large incentives to make sites that can pull in as many viewers (and page views) as possible. Sites like "failblog" and "" capitalise using content of absolutely minimal size, for maximal morishness: the picture + caption = instant comedy (LOLs or lulz). While their memes are packaged to be as compact as possible, they limit themselves to the themes of Schadenfreude and our love of cute feline companions (respectively).

Instead of competing for users and advertising revenue by being the best site in a given domain (a depth first approach) "theChive" aggregates any and all material it can get away with using (a breadth first approach). It takes the memetic jam sandwich that is the internet and strips away the boring bread in the hopes of becoming "Probably the Best Site in the World". It's the Sun of photoblogging, awash with plenty of girls, humour, semi-naked girls, military hardware and antics, celeb girls, general freak-show material and even some bona fide art. For maximally broad appeal it seems to be porn free and even has a sister site ("theBerry") flavoured for women (plus two others devoted to more male obsessions with cars and military stuff). Also, while the amount of on page advertising is blatant, and it opens up a new tab for each new item, it is not sufficiently maze-like to put off the casual surfer (unlike far dodgier link-bait sites with fake torrent downloads or porn).

I can personally attest to the potency of this formulae for holding one's attention captive, it really demonstrates how thoroughly memes have subverted human brains to spread themselves. Parasites that pray on our conscious attention in the hope of being spoken/sung/repeated (that tune you could not get out of your head earlier), their influence has even managed to shape us such that we desperately want to usher more of their kin into our brains. We are all hapless victims of the selfish memes.

+ Links

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