Re: Mini case study of memetic mutation

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Thu 07 Nov 2002 - 02:35:51 GMT

  • Next message: "Re: The terrorism meme"

    >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
    >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
    >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,
    I think your analysis makes much more sense than the idea that we were infected by emoticon memes. It's a good look at why people make the choices they make and what they result in on a social basis.


    _________________________________________________________________ Add photos to your e-mail with MSN 8. Get 2 months FREE*.

    =============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see:

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Thu 07 Nov 2002 - 02:39:32 GMT