Why Kittens Rule the Meme Pool — Natural Selection at its Best
It is easy to find pictures of kittens on the internet. It is also easy to find videos of babies laughing, bad jokes, and web sites dedicated to and full of reviews of various dishes that you will never eat. These things, and porn, clutter the surface of cyberspace. Why? Why on the Reddit, ‘the front page of the internet’, do we find mildly funny photographs and pictures of pets at the top? I think we all can hazard a pretty legitimate guess, but for the sake of personal edification, let’s look at the issue through the lens of an evolutionary biologist.
In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins singles out the gene –a replicator –as the primary unit of natural selection. The gene is what is replicated through reproduction, and mutations in the gene (miscopies) give rise to the higher-level changes we observe in organisms. These higher level changes might increase the organisms chance of survival, but what it really comes down to is the increase in the genes likelihood to be passed on to further generations. To explain all of human behavior in terms of the gene is impossible, though. Changes within human culture cannot always be taken into account by the theories of evolutionary biology. For such changes, Dawkins coins and suggests the term meme –the cultural replicator. A meme is, like a gene, a replicating unit (note the phonetic similarity). Also like the gene, the meme is ambiguous in structure. A gene could be defined as any given (reasonable) stretch of a chromosome, and there is no universal definition that says a gene is of size x; it starts here and ends here. Similarly, a meme can come in a variety of forms. It could be a sentence, a photograph, a sonnet, or an ideology. An idea can be passed along from person to person. Mutations in the idea might arise from bad translations, poor hearing, unclear wording, and so forth, and these mutations will either be selected and propagated or singled out as ‘mistakes’ of some sort. We have all played the game telephone at one point or another.
Replicators of any kind, according to Dawkins’ theory, become more prevalent in the gene or meme pool by virtue of three basic qualities: fecundity, copying fidelity, and longevity. Fecundity simply refers to the frequency of replication, copying fidelity refers to the accuracy of the replicated product (how true it is to the original), and longevity refers to the ‘life-span.’
When we take a look at a meme, then –say, this photograph of kittens which is very near the top of Reddit’s home page –what can we tell about its memetic structure?
Since it is an image on the internet, its reproductivity is very high. Quick share buttons, up-vote buttons, like buttons, and the ability to copy and paste a URL make replicating the little guys easy. Also, because it is an image, it requires very little time or energy to make an impression in the mind of the beholder, which allows for rapid, uninhibited transmission from that mind to another. A second, maybe two, maybe less, and there you have it –you’ve just seen some slightly notable kittens.
In terms of copying fidelity, I don’t think you could do better. It is a digital file. It might be resized or cropped or brightened –which may, to some, be the beginnings of a very exciting evolutionary event on the timeline of kitten memes– but the content of the image will remain largely the same. There will, of course, be those who use their valuable time and skill to edit the image, perhaps to draw a mustache or two, perhaps to add a witty comment like ‘If we lie here, I bet those idiots will make us famous.’ Then, if the new mutation surpasses the old in any of the three qualifying traits, it will become more prevalent in the meme pool than the original. The basic structure, though –two over-fed cats lying prostrate in between two ugly rugs –will remain the same.
Longevity is a bit obvious here. It’s on the internet. It will be there for a while. Of course, the length of time that it remains so prevalent in the cyber-meme pool is questionable. I am sure a dedicated analyst could predict this based on other trends in the kitten-photo sharing sphere. I am not a dedicated analyst.
A few entries below this lovable duo on Reddit is an article from The Independent about the rape victim in the Maldives who was sentenced to 100 lashes after being raped by her step-father. A few entries below this, is a picture of a velociraptor wondering about the blindness of bats, Batman, Daredevil, and Ben Affleck. The people have spoken, I suppose. Presidential candidates should take note of this –say nothing of consequence, and you’ve got a fighting chance. Assuming that voters on Reddit are also voters in the political arena, I am a little alarmed.
The reason longer, thoughtful, articles do not rise to the surface like the kittens is precisely because they are longer and thoughtful. To replicate a long article about, say, the exciting state of modern physics, or how the philosophical discourse in Don Quixote can shed light on a problem in our current thinking about the environment, would take time and energy. It is, like the previous sentence, hard to get through. The decision to ‘share’ the information, requires that you first interact with it intellectually, which may take minutes or hours or days. Sometimes, as in the case of the article about the Maldives rape victim, the headline is succinct and telling enough to make the viewer feel confident in their understanding of the meme as a whole and even morally righteous in their choice to replicate it. This is why such articles are higher in the mix. Put an uncommon word or confusing punctuation the title and watch the article sink, despite its richness, into the Cyber-Lethe.
The copying-fidelity of more complex memes is much lower than that of the kittens. A more complex structure is simply more difficult to accurately replicate. Unless you are just sharing the link, you’ll have to actually formulate words of your own to summarize and judge the information you have read. Plagiarism is frowned upon, so the copy and paste shortcut is out of the question. No, you would actually have to read, think, write, think, write, and give credit where credit is due. When someone takes the energy to do this, they will often change the original points, and alas, the original meme might be lost as natural selection favors its more palatable, albeit less informative, offspring.
What can we do to combat this? How do we rise above the seemingly impermeable layer of syntactically ridiculous status updates littered with yolos and lols that inform us about what different people are doing and eating every minute of every day? How do we make the incredible content that floats around unappreciated rise to the top? How can we take the meme pool back from the adorable kittens that now rule it? I’ve got no freakin idea. We could start, I suppose, by operating in a separate meme pool, a meme pool in which the replicators are thoughtful, helpful, or informative. In such a meme pool, the population of kitten memes would be zero, and if one were introduced through some unforeseen mutation, we could hope that the newly created environment would be hazardous to the kitten meme. Memes, like genes, flourish and perish under different environmental circumstances. So, if kitten memes are flourishing now, we are partly to blame. By making the internet a place where everyone clicks, clicks, and clicks again with short attention spans and lack of interest, we are creating an environment in which a cute photograph of kittens –being easy on the eyes, mind, and fingers –flourishes above all else. I do not think that this flourishing always comes at the expense of the good content that hides a little deeper, but then again, who knows what I could have learned or benefited from had real stories or information been at the top of the Reddit page when I went there to get the information for this post? There is a place for kitten memes, I am sure, just as there is a place for reality TV shows. But do these really belong at the top?