TD06 – How Memes Replicate




At an IBM conference in Monte Carlo in 1985 I shared the platform with Robert Cialdini who was a Psychology Professor at Arizona State University.

Robert-CialdiniDr Cialdini was interested in how people become influenced by other people and he gave me a copy of his best-seller, Influence: How and Why People Agree to Things. It’s a fascinating book and I’ve given a number of copies away to friends.

There are many compelling examples in his book of memes that replicate but, to me, this ‘suicide meme’ that replicates other identical suicides is one of the most baffling:

The influence of suicide stories on car and plane crashes is fantastically specific. Stories of pure suicides, in which only one person dies, generate wrecks in which only one person dies; stories of suicide-murder combinations, in which there are multiple deaths, generate wrecks in which there are multiple deaths. There is a sociologist at the University of California in San Diego who thinks he has found the answer. His name is David Phillips and he points a convincing finger at something called the “Werther effect”. The story of the Werther effect is both chilling and intriguing. More than two centuries ago, the great man of German literature, Johann von Goethe, published a novel entitled Die Lieden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther). The book, in which the hero, named Werther, commits suicide, had a remarkable impact. Not only did it provide Goethe with immediate fame, but it also sparked a wave of emulative suicides across Europe. So powerful was this effect that authorities in several countries banned the novel.

As replicators, memes derive power from their success at replicating. In meme wars, those memes that are better at getting themselves copied are the winners those that are not are the losers. This means memes have two main ways to win: increase ‘my’ copies, decrease ‘their’ copies.

Fidelity, Fecundity & Longevity

Replicators derive their power from high marks out of three traits: fidelity, fecundity and longevity;

fidelity means a true copy that is faithful to the original. It is clear and precise. It is reliable like a Xerox.
fecundity means a potent copy that is capable of multiple replications. It is fruitful and yields an abundance of copies like a McDonald’s franchise..
longevity means a lasting copy that will go the distance. It is robust and tangible like a time capsule.


Just another reminder, memes really have no wit nor will to do this or that; they have no intention or personality any more than does a virus. In other words, they’re not aware of their effect, they don’t know what they’re doing – they just do. They are just code.

It is only a convenience to refer to them in this anthropomorphic way. What seem to be ‘intentional’ strategies are just the way survival of the fittest turns out in the end. But we, as observers looking back in retrospect, say things like “This clever meme increased its copies here, that dumb meme lost out there” and so on.

Needlesstosay, there are really no clever memes or dumb memes just survival successes and failures at the end of the day.

Having said that, memes have evolved in many different ways in the battle to multiply themselves, to spread around. Some of  these fascinating ways of survival will be categorised in the next lesson.

DFQ TD06 (Feedback Question):

What are the three traits that most give memes their power?

207 thoughts on “TD06 – How Memes Replicate

  1. Fidelity (Accuracy in being copied), Fecundity (No. of copies made), Longevity (Length of life)

  2. How well they copy the original, how many times they spread and how long they last in people’s minds.

    Though something needs to be said about the first premise. Sometimes, distorted meme becomes more powerful than the original, especially where there is no accepted authority to kill it.

  3. Memes get their power by their accuracy, the number of copies they make and the length of time those copies last.

  4. The three traits which are related to the copying and the copies produced:
    fidelity,fecundity and longevity.
    The basic traits related to what to be copied ( subject) : expressiveness , accessibility and acceptability .

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