The Age of the MemeAdam Ludwin Dec 08, 2011 Back to blog
tl;dr: everything is now a meme
Is there any doubt about the nature of the moment we live in? We are passing through a period of global disruption and fermentation. An age of volatility and risk. The bottoms-up, decentralized, and emergent is overtaking the top-down, centralized, and directed.
That much is probably obvious to anyone who’s awake (not to mention the 20% of Americans with anxiety disorders). What’s less clear is what to make of it all. How do we define exactly what is going on? Change is happening everywhere, all the time. It is disrupting industries, unsettling governments, and shaking markets. Even those on the vanguard of movements like OccupyWallSt and the Tea Party struggle to articulate their goals, or perhaps more to the point, struggle to direct them at any particular source.
That’s because the nature of this change is itself unprecedented. It is particular to our global, hyper-connected context. It is characterized by the inevitable and organic emergence of ideas at an incredibly high velocity that capture our collective imagination, take form, evolve, and remix in unexpected ways with the next idea.
In other words, we are entering the age of the meme.
You’ve probably seen funny image memes like LOLcats, rage comics, the Y U NO guy, Sad Keanu, or the Philosoraptor, especially if you frequent sites like Reddit, Buzzfeed, 9GAG, or Cheezburger, though they are now spreading like wildfire through Facebook, Twitter, and good old-fashioned email.
Like all memes, humor memes are organic phenomena that are never finished but mutate and live on in new memes. Their emergence is certain, yet their particular form is unknowable in advance. For example, there will be a new, hilarious meme next week on Reddit, and no one yet knows what it will be. But it will emerge. That’s why platforms like Cheezburger are so amazing: they facilitate the appearance of hits, but unlike Disney, they don’t have to invest in an idea and then hope that it works. It works first, which is why it emerges.
A particular meme gains prominence by beating out many other variations in a Darwinian battle for survival analogous to biological evolution. Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme,” in 1976, with this in mind. As he noted then, memes are as old as culture, and began as oral histories, proverbs, and learned skills. Human beings serve as replicators, passing memes from one person to another, a process that has been enhanced over time by new tools and higher levels of connectivity.
But what’s happening today is not simply an acceleration of an age-old cultural process. We have hit an inflection point. We are an always-on culture now. Social networks have reached critical mass. Inexpensive tools for creating and remixing content have been widely adopted. Our collective consciousness has come online. The intelligence in the system is now coming from below, not above. The sage on the stage is no more.
And our collective mind is pumping out memes that are shaping every conceivable domain. Humor is simply the tip of the spear.
Here are a few examples.
Fashion. The top-down, designer-led, runway-to-rack paradigm was perhaps captured most famously in The Devil Wears Prada where fashion editor Miranda Priestly explains to Andrea that the blue sweater she believes she “chose” was in fact “selected for [her] by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”
This began to change when companies like Inditex (Zara) implemented demand-driven supply chains and bloggers like The Sartorialist started influencing brands with his street style photography featuring real people.
But that’s nothing compared to what’s beginning to happen. The best examples are found on Pinterest and Tumblr. Instead of simply serving to identify trends that inspire designers upstream, these platforms have achieved the velocity and volume necessary to bubble up entirely new ideas, or fashion memes. To be sure, a lot of the images on these sites today simply reflect and magnify designer choices from above, but an increasing share is of a different nature. For example, a meme might emerge when a girl in Stockholm finds a scarf in her grandmother’s attic and posts a photo of herself wearing it on Tumblr. From there, the scarf is re-blogged thousands of times, picked up on Pinterest and added to hundreds of style boards, and over time beats out thousands of other potential scarfs for prominence in the fashion zeitgeist.
I think there is a real opportunity to build new brands by identifying and producing apparel based on these fashion memes. The season-driven apparel cycle isn’t going away tomorrow, but the reign of the runway is waning.
Politics. Much has been written about the role of social networks in supporting movements like the Tea Party, OccupyWallSt, and the Arab Spring.
But these movements themselves can be understood as memes. As this New York Times article explains:
On July 13, [Kalle Lasn] and his colleagues created a new hash tag on Twitter: #OCCUPYWALLSTREET. For some people they were just words and images. For Mr. Lasn, they were tools to begin remodeling the “mental environment,” to create a new “meme.”
No one knew in advance just what form a modern, anti-corporate movement would take; although many, including Fred Wilson, predicted that such a movement was inevitable. As with all memes, the particular form and timing was unknown in advance, but it was clear something would emerge from below and would be sweeping when it did. More are sure to follow.
As we enter campaign season, it is worth remembering that the iconic Obama Hope poster was not created by the campaign, but by the artist Shepard Fairey to sell on the street. Only after it became a meme, because of the digital version that swirled around the web in various forms during the social network-driven campaign cycle of 2008, did the Obama campaign wisely commission an official version. What began as a street poster ended up in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery because of its influence as a political meme.
Music and Entertainment. As Kirby Ferguson explains so well in his fantastic series, Everything is a Remix, for decades artists have created popular music and movies by borrowing and remixing stories, sounds, and images.
But that process has been democratized thanks to YouTube. The result is one of the most prominent memes of all, the viral video: the Rick Roll, Diet Coke and Mentos, Leeroy Jenkins, and the Double Rainbow guy, to name just a few.
Celebrities like Justin Bieber and Andy Samberg (not to mention Rebecca Black) owe their careers to YouTube, which is nothing if not a brutally Darwinian platform where, like on Cheezburger, hits are inevitable and driven by the collective response of the whole, not the taste-predicting abilities of an A&R man or studio head.
Companies like Smule are pushing things further still, putting simple and fun music creation tools in the hands of all. I think there remains a huge opportunity to be the platform that facilitates not just the emergence of hits, but also their creation.
News and Information. A history professor of mine once remarked that if you divided the world in half and had one half of civilization live life as usual, and the other half write down everything they were witnessing, you would still struggle to adequately record every event.
Well, that was before Twitter. Twitter has become, among other things, a real-time record of the events unfolding in the world. What better example than @ReallyVirtual’s tweets about the Osama Bin Laden raid as it was happening.
Trending topics are the new headlines. Said another way, they are news memes.
And the information being harvested on platforms like Twitter is now being analyzed for insights by companies like Dataminr, which is building a platform for fund managers and traders to leverage the intelligence emerging from below. We are in the early innings of learning how to detect signal in the noise, but here again is a huge opportunity that will play out in fascinating ways.
Start-ups. As I wrote this past summer, most start-ups are not unique and it is common for similar companies to pitch me at the same time. This isn’t because people are stealing each other’s ideas, but because the conditions for their emergence are ripe. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker a few years ago:
Scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place.
The marketplace itself acts as the meme-producing platform for start-ups. First, there is the emergence of similar looking companies, followed by a winnowing of the market as certain players out-execute others, and concluding with a subset of winners.
In an emergent start-up ecosystem, my job as a VC becomes principally one of immersion and observation. I do not need to predict the future, only put myself in the right place and watch carefully for early indications of market resonance. As with all other memes, start-ups work first and emerge second. This is what underlies the iterative lean-startup framework.
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There are many more examples – in fact it’s hard for me to think of a domain where memes aren’t beginning to take hold. As I said above, this is the context for the historical moment we are entering. And there are big, investable opportunities (if you have one you want to discuss, I'd love to talk - firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @adamludwin).
But what if your livelihood depends on being a top-downer? What if you are in government, or a school administrator, or a brand manager for a cola beverage? How do you succeed in a world where the intelligence, tastes, and decision rights are shifting from above, concentrated in a few, to below, dispersed across all?
When we talk about “progressive schools” and “smart government” and even “viral marketing” I think we mean essentially the same thing. That these institutions become platforms to capture, disseminate, and build upon the best of what that comes from below. For schools, that means having students do the work at home and bring their best ideas to class the next day to debate and learn together, where the teacher plays role of facilitator. For government, it means figuring out how to create a democracy that is inclusive of the best ideas that emerge organically. And for marketers, the first step is learning how to let the brand become a meme (you’ll know it’s working if you feel like you’ve completely lost control, as happened with The Most Interesting Man). As Andy Weissman wrote recently, we may be entering a golden age of marketing, and I think that’s in large part because we’re entering the age of the memes.
Often the exception proves the rule, and if you’re still not convinced that memes are taking over, or that top-downers are going extinct, look no further than North Korea, the last bastion of isolation, cut off entirely from the world’s collective mind. The reason the video below is so damn funny (which is itself part of a larger Party Rock Anthem meme) is because of the absolute contrast between those seen in the video, who’s every action is directed from above, and the music, which they have surely never heard.