The Dawn of "Memeocracy"

By Balaji Prasad

“The true identity theft is not financial. It's not in cyberspace. It's spiritual. It's been taken." ~ Stephen Covey

A thing is the thing it seems to be, right? Not quite, if we dive a bit deeper into the matter.

When we zoom in, we see many things that couldn't be seen when we were looking at the thing in a broader manner. “Oh! That changes things," we say to ourselves, as we change our verdict from “guilty" to “innocent". This is all well and good if we're operating just from the safety of our armchairs in our gated ivory towers. “It's not as if I'm a juror," we rationalize, quite glibly, as we begin a shift in our position. Yes, “begin", because a shift in stance is never easy. This is because during the process of taking a certain position, we may have begun to think along certain lines that have crystallized – perhaps even set in concrete. These “residual ideas" will likely continue to exist even as our position begins its reluctant move from point A, where we were anchored passionately, toward point B. Such residual ideas can act as a severe drag on the forward thrust exerted by the new information that came to light.

Things can be much more troublesome, though. Maybe we didn't keep our position private. Maybe we shared it with a few people. Or even shared it with a large number of people, or in a very strong, emotionally charged way. The loss of face involved now becomes an additional issue. We cannot back out of this thing we have gotten ourselves into, in a dignified manner. So we may look for ways to back out without appearing to be backing out.

The point is that not only is a thing not just the thing it appears to be, but it may be difficult to go toward what the thing might actually be, even when reality pushes back hard against how we happened to see the thing at first.

It gets even worse…

The birth of a new “thing"

Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme" in 1976, fashioned after “gene", with the intention to characterize how ideas mutate and evolve. As with many other things, a thing stops being just the thing that it was, and becomes something quite different from what a creator may have intended; and so it has been with “meme", which Dawkins considered as having been “hijacked" by the Internet culture.

Regardless of the roots of the word, it is now firmly entrenched in our social media lexicon. It sits side by side as an equal citizen with real things like apples and cars and factories. Is a meme a “thing"? If it has impact on the way we speak, behave and do things, then we would have to grudgingly acknowledge its status as a first-class “thing".

It is difficult to understate the impact of so many memes that have permeated the Internet over the last decade or so. A meme comes from outside me, as does a storm. And, just as with a storm, as merely a little dot on a “pale blue dot", I have no control over its trajectory and impact. Sometimes it comes and razes what used to exist to the ground, and sometimes, it slithers in and out, as a fad does. If you're not just a little dot in the landscape, you may have more impact on a meme. If you're a Hollywood celebrity or an NFL player, for example, you have a better shot at originating or accelerating a meme. And the likes of me will just have to helplessly accept the existence of one more “thing" in my life.

But some of us little dots in the universe play a role in what is an emerging “memeocracy": we become part of the distribution channel for the meme, giving it sustenance over time.

One too many me's in meme

It would seem fair to observe that many people like to have a sense of identity. “This is me!" he exclaims, as he shows off his tattoo, or the particular brand of fine wine or other intoxicating substance he consumes. It is not that these things always have significantly more utilitarian or aesthetic value; of course, the more you pay, the more the maker has the margin needed to use better material and such. But that's not the primary driver for buying these things. It's the “me" factor that drives many of these acquisitions.

If you can wear a Gucci bag, you can wear words too. Who would not like to be known as a kind-hearted person? Who would not like to be thought of as very intelligent? Memes play right into this desire to be seen as this or that by other people. At its most basic level, a meme is just a word, a term that has found admiration (or hatred) in a broader population's eyes. But it is much more than that. In an irony of language, the word accidentally says more than it was designed to convey: “meme" has two me's in it. Two for the price of one! We can profess our allegiance to some meme, and wear it proudly, never mind that it may hurt us and everyone else in the process. That only comes later. And when it does, it won't be just a double “me"; it will be a double whammy that causes us not only to waste our time living in illusions, but also to get hurt by the damage it brings to our world and us.

Shun memes, I say. Be you. If you really must do an identity thing, do something a little less harmless, such as a tattoo!

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Balaji Prasad is an IIT/IIM graduate, a published author, SAT/ACT Online and Offline Coach, interview, resume, and career coach at NewCranium. Contact: 704.746.9779 or balaji.prasad@newcranium.com