We know that memes are related to cultural evolution, but why are they essential for us? It has been proved that the boundaries between knowing, feeling, and doing are not as clear-cut as assumed. This is where memes come in: they help to transfer knowledge from one person to another.
Memes in action
But how do memes fit into this role of mediator between knowledge and action? What kind of mechanism makes them capable of connecting what people know with their actions? And how did it become possible for certain memes to become powerful over time? Refer to Meme Scout to know.
The answer lies in our human brains. Some scientists assume that our brain needs a stimulus that forces it out of its comfort zone now and then. When you get used to something, your brain stops paying attention, and you need something new, something surprising, to wake it up again.
What we consider as “new” is – of course – not always completely new: What does a child think when he hears for the first time that 2 and 2 make 4? He doesn’t think anything special at all because he has no other reference yet. But if I asked him how old he is, the answer would vary depending on what I named his age before asking it because he now knows this number. The number itself was not what made him give me the correct answer but our social convention.
Social convention influences
So if social conventions are so influential for us, could they also affect our brains in a way that enables memes to be spread more easily without bothering us with information we already know?
Some researchers think so, and they prove it: When people drink a glass of an energy drink, and the experimenter tells them that this drink is called “Red Bull,” they suddenly perform better in physical exercise tests than when they were told to drink the same thing but while hearing another name. The mere suggestion about what this drink was called made their brains absorb knowledge faster, making them more susceptible to spread this information. This phenomenon is called priming.
The comparison between our willingness to share certain memes and how much awareness we have of its content may be quite fascinating too: If someone were to look at very abstract paintings during one month, his ability for identifying complex shapes would improve after that period, even though he has no idea what he looked at.
It doesn’t matter for our brain if we know why something looks like this, but it will absorb the information and make us more likely to share this information with others later. Following these findings, memes could also spread simply because of their shape; the actual content is not necessary anymore. It’s hardly surprising that many videos go viral on social networks: They don’t have a certain stance someone could disagree with, and they’re short too.
However, the question remains how a meme reaches a high spot in the ranking of most shared content? At first sight, it seems that some memes are just more popular than other ones while being about equally good. But there is more to it: Not only is there a specific ranking of popularity, but many meme formats are also subject to this phenomenon.
We see the same picture repeatedly: Some memes get “jacked” by other people who use them for their purposes afterward. This could be done in a way that takes advantage of the fact that social conventions easily influence us: If someone tells us that “McDonald’s is trying hard to become hip and cool,” we will automatically see the brand in a new light which makes us more likely to share this statement.