The web 2.0 meme machine

Reflecting on a lot of what I have been reading and listening to recently – through blogs, patient publications and conferences, viagra I was reminded of a book I read a few years ago which I am sure many others have read too – namely the Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. The folllowing quote is taken from her website:

Memes are habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information that is copied from person to person. Memes, like genes, are replicators. That is, they are information that is copied with variation and selection. Because only some of the variants survive, memes (and hence human cultures) evolve. Memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again. Large groups of memes that are copied and passed on together are called co-adapted meme complexes, or memeplexes.

A search on ‘meme web 2.0’ shows that the concept has been taken up and applied with vigour, see for example the well cited Web 2.0 meme mindmap . Other words and brands are memes in themselves – ‘facebook’, ‘myspace’, ‘flicker’, ‘YouTube’ in the ways in which they are being discussed - not just products but ways of working, as philosophies almost. Just go and have a perusal around the Social Networking site for example. An example of a ‘change in action’ is evident I think in the term social graph as opposed to social networking, see for example Stowe Boyd’s postings on this, such as his debate with Dave McClure.

There are two points I want to make– the first is that the way in which web 2.0 and related vocabulary have infiltrated our lives since O’Reilly’s original posting in 2005 is staggering – talk about an infectious disease! This does to my mind nicely illustrate many of the arguments Susan Blackmore makes in her book. But the second point I want to make is that behind the simple rhetoric of headline meme titles – ‘web 2.0’, ‘e-learning 2.0’, ‘social networking’, ‘social graphs’, etc. there is huge complexity. Complexity in a technical sense in that things are changing so rapidly it’s getting increasingly difficult to keep up, but complexity also conceptually – how do we best describe these phenomena? How do we distinguish between the tools, their functionality, their relationship with users and the environment? What metaphors best describe this? Space metaphors have long been used, but as the interaction of tools, people and the environment become ever more complex and interconnected boundaries between time, space, tools, and individuals start to blur; space alone as the primary metaphor is not enough.

Let’s try and unpack this a little… Where am I now in terms of my presence? Physically at home on a coldish October morning in the UK, cat by my side? Wherever you are when reading this blog? In my Twitter or facebook persona? Or floundering around as some half realized avatar in second life? How do the different threads of my presence online interconnect? What about taking a tool perspective? Is Second Life a tool that enables you to interact in a 3D-environment, or is it a philosophy for a new way of thinking, working, connecting, breaking away from conventional identities? See for example some of the rhetoric associated with the Schome project.

Of course technology innovations tend to come in waves - meme waves perhaps ;-). A key one in the UK in the late nineties was the emergence of VLEs and MLEs. The classic diagram you saw everywhere at the time now looks somewhat quant. MLE diagram(As an aside I was guilty too of using it in my presentations and then panicked one day because I realized I didn’t actually know who to attribute it too, it kind of had an official JISC badge to it but no one there seemed to know the origin, anyway after a lot of scouting about I traced it back to Bob Powell – thanks Bob!). VLEs were quickly moving from being interesting toys for a few innovators to play with to being standard agenda items on official university committees, new roles began to emerge in terms of supporting the implementation of VLEs and associated use. However, it soon became apparent that although these terms quickly entered general discourse, there was considerable confusion in terms of what they actually meant. JISC commissioned Sarah Holyfield to produce a report that tried to make some sense of this. She looked at the various notations, diagrams and descriptions people were using at the time to pin down these concepts, and although the terms themselves appear old fashioned now (no one ever talks about MLEs anymore!) some of the ways of representing ideas are worth skimming through and considering in terms of how they might be used in today’s context.

From a different discipline perspective, Morgan (1986) describes a series of metaphorical models and ways of thinking about organisations (organisation as machine, brain, organism/ecosystem, culture/mini-society, political system). (As an aside I think from memory I came across this reference through a conversation with Olig Liber – how does that get represented in my social graph?). And without too much thought it is easy to see how some of these ideas could be applied to our current context and how they might provide a means of helping us to explain the complex nature of the interaction between technologies, users and the environment.

So the questions I leave you to ponder are:

  • “How much do we understand the nature of the interaction between technologies, users and the environment - beyond the rhetoric of the web 2.0 meme?
  • And

  • “How can we represent this understanding conceptually?”
  • References

    Morgan, G. (1986) Images of organisations, 2nd Edition, London: Sage Publications

    2 Responses to “The web 2.0 meme machine”

    1. Tony Hirst Says:

      I often think of things in terms of conversations - eg. conversations with people, conversations with google ;-), conversations with ideas via differnt people’s interpretations of those ideas.

      Conversations involve exploring and unpacking a topic; conversation are edges between nodes that can themselves become nodes/references in other conversations.

      A complete misunderstanding at a tender age of Pask (ex-IET, I think?) probably has something to do with this view of things…!

      tony

    2. Gráinne Says:

      Yes Tony I think alot of it is about conversation and I would add to your list internal conversation - ie talking to yourself (do I really want to admit that???) Niel Mercers Inter-thinking comes to mind…

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