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The Power of Memes

April 29th, 2010 by | 3 Comments

It began with the forwards that filled your inbox. Long, extensive surveys, asking the most intimate questions about yourself, your family, and your friends, ended with well-wishes and unexpected warnings of life-long bad luck, should you neglect to pass it along to eight friends (and back to the person who sent it to you, obviously.) These soon became quizzes, passed through AOL Instant Messenger, and posted in personal profiles. Soon, Myspace became the home of these poems, quizzes, and questionnaires that had made the rounds on other platforms. The next generation thrived on blogs like LiveJournal and Xanga, along with Myspace, until Facebook joined the game with Notes, Boxes, and later, Apps.

But just as the platforms have evolved, so has the content. Sure, the basic concepts remain the same. They are powered by a sense of self; participants take part in the activities as a means to frame their personality, share their beliefs, and generally share things about themselves. Additionally, these memes are intended to impart a sense of community, or friendship. Not only do those who participate share with others details of their life, but memes survive on the willingness of participants to pass along the activity. The most successful apps, like Farmville and Café World, offer incentives for individuals who connect with other players, giving them a chance to gift items in hopes of receiving some in return. And of course, all memes also impart a very specific tone: one of entertainment.

Consider recent memes that have made their rounds on Facebook. The 25 Things note managed to touch hundreds of thousands of users, and inspired a number of parodies and reactions, both positive and negative. For many users, groups became a new iteration of their favorite memes, bringing individuals together to create a community around ideas, beliefs, or more often than not, something witty and clever. Sounds simple, and perhaps that’s exactly why it works. Memes are meant to be accessible; anyone can participate, because if it wasn’t easy to participate, they would never successfully become a meme.

Evolution is a constant companion to successful memes. With Facebook’s recent switch from “Fan” to “Like,” culture-makers have already taken their cue for change. The result? News feeds that read, “Sarah Johnson, Ben Anderson, and three others like you.” “Emily Thompson likes big butts.” The list of new groups, playing on the new language, goes on and on. And it is due to the extreme share-ability of these clever quips that they have managed to grow to such numbers so quickly. Another way to think of this share-ability is asking yourself, “Is it linkable?”

The power of memes, in all its forms, relies on its linkability. If it isn’t easy to share, if it isn’t desirable to share, if it isn’t a natural reaction to share, the content will never reach eyeballs. This goes for all content in the age of the internet. So the next time you’re creating a video, an ad, a story, or any other branded content, remember memes and make sure your work will inspire others to link and share it with their own communities.

Claire Grinton is a brand strategist and writer based in San Francisco. Find more from Claire or contact her at claire[dot]grinton[at]gmail.


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