Mini case study of memetic mutation

From: Bill Spight (
Date: Wed 06 Nov 2002 - 23:57:01 GMT

  • Next message: Richard Brodie: "RE: Mini case study of memetic mutation"


    I have been online since 1983. I want to discuss briefly a couple of memetic changes I have seen during that time.

    It seems to me that misunderstandings in online discussions were more prevalent in the 80s than today. "You didn't read what I wrote," was a very common complaint. Without the cues of face to face communication, people often misread the tone of a note, usually assuming more negativity than was intended, but often assuming more intimacy, as well. Online discussion is a hot medium.

    To flesh out their online writing, by 1983 people were already using bracketed comments, particularly <smile>, <frown>, and <grin>, at the end of their sentences. <smile> and <grin> were often abbreviated to <s> and <g>, respectively. A minority of people were using emoticons like
    :-) and ;-). (There are other <smile> and <grin> emoticons, but I will use these as exemplars.) Over time the longer forms, <smile> and <grin>, became rare, and their abbreviations became more common. The emoticons' usage grew even more rapidly. With the explosive growth of the online population in the 90s the emoticons won out. Today you hardly ever see a bracketed comment.

    What caused these memetic changes?

    The rise of the abbreviations has easy explanations at hand. They were easier to type. Besides, initial abbrevition was already an established feature of English, as was the use of acronyms, which also flourished online. Also, a large portion of the online population were computer programmers, and saving keystrokes was a value for that group. Another reason perhaps had to do with expense. Online time was fairly expensive. I remember paying about $7/hr. Cutting down your online time, even a second here and there, was considered worth it. Those seconds added up.

    Why emoticons triumphed I am less sure about. It seems like a regression from alphabetic to iconic form. Their triumph coincided with the rise of GUIs, which most people find more convenient than console interfaces. We must remember Gould's point that evolution is not, ipso facto, progress.

    Why did alphabets and syllabaries evolve from iconic writing? A major reason is that using relatively few simple symbols to represent the sounds of a language is easier than using complex icons to represent more meaningful units. However, the use of iconic writing has a long history, and is arguably more congenial to the human visual processing of meaning than using symbols for sounds. This is a kind of argument from evolutionary psychology, that we evolved in an environment where we needed to interpret both visual and auditory signs and signals, but did not need to read. There is also an argument in terms of brain function. Translating from visual to auditory before deciphering the meaning of a symbol is less efficient than going directly from visual symbol to meaning. Note that when reading to yourself you do not pronounce these emoticons.

    Note that this memetic evolution is entirely in terms of expressions.
    <smile>, <s>, and :-) all mean the same thing. This means that memes are
    *not* ideas, at least not all memes. The idea stayed the same while the expression evolved. Those favoring internal memes need to account for such change.

    Now I want to discuss a different kind of change for the :-) emoticon. In the mid-90s in an online discussion someone responded angrily to a nasty note. The nasty note writer replied, "I was just kidding. Didn't you see the :-)?" In a later discussion someone interpreted my :-) to mean that I wasn't serious about what I said. "Just kidding."

    The :-) added a meaning of "just kidding". That is curious, because a smile in conversation does not carry that meaning. Here is a possible explanation. Take the first example, where someone wrote something unfriendly and then added a :-) at the end. Since the :-) carries a friendly meaning there is a contradiction in tone. Adding the :-) says not to take the unfriendly tone seriously: just kidding. (IMX, the :-) in such cases often seems insincere, giving the writer an excuse if the other person responds negatively. "Hey, just kidding.") This meaning then got carried over into other contexts, where the tone is not unfriendly, so that :-) might mean that the writer is not serious about what he wrote: just kidding.

    I think that this is an example of one way that meanings change. An expression takes on a meaning in a certain context which is not just a narrowing of the original meaning. Such a contextual meaning is the difference in meaning between the context with and without the expression. Then this contextual meaning gets carried over into other contexts.

    Since the expression remains the same, this kind of memetic change poses a challenge for externally defined memes. Any definition of memes must address changes of both manifestation and meaning.

    Best to all,


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