Me-me-me Meets the Meme

When Facebook Plays with the Literary Canon


Old book bindings at Merton College Library, Oxford

Photo by Tom Murphy VII. Used under CC Attribution-Share Alike Unported License 3.0.

In the balmy days of my formal education in literature (you may read balmy as either “comfortable” or “insane,” as you wish), one topic students were sure to greet with enthusiasm and a large bottle of wine was the so-called literary canon.

Our arguments swirled around whether what we were told in school was essential reading really was essential; who decided it was essential (which social class, or to be more colloquially American, which group of old fuddy duddies, anthology publisher, or curriculum-development corporation); how “they” determined it was essential; and whether it wasn’t time to abolish the idea of a canon entirely, in our postmodern, multicultural, deconstructionist era, or whether the old list – short though it is on female, nonwhite, non-Western, and alternately sexual authors – remained such a defining cultural element in education that it had become immovable. We never came to conclusions on this, except that vintners worldwide make a lot of money off of students in the English Lit departments of the world.

So it was with nostalgic amusement yesterday that I received a note passed along on Facebook via my university-days friend Pelotard. Titled “Calling All Book Nerds – Let’s Prove the BBC Wrong,” it put forth a list of 100 books and asked:

Have you read more than 6 of these books? The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books listed here. Instructions: Copy this into your NOTES. Bold those books you’ve read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish or read an excerpt.

As I’ve mentioned before, Pelotard used to be a science student; and if he doesn’t own as many books as I do, it simply means he has opted for a home environment that is less likely to appear on Hoarders than mine is. He has an inquiring mind, and his friends have inquiring minds … and considerable world exposure, so little native xenophobia. The idea that the BBC had developed quite such a mix of credulity and pomposity struck them as possible but not terribly likely.

So Pelotard hunted the Internet, and lo and behold, he came up with an account of this Facebook note in March 2009 – one that debunked the idea that the BBC was making condescending evaluations of how much people read. PurpleCar blogger Christine Cavalier likewise did some hunting when she got the book list, and she provides an explanation of a phenomenon I’d heard about but didn’t understand until this instance: the Internet meme. The term refers to the spread of an idea – a video, a photo, a list, what have you – through social media, email, and other Internet means, from peer to peer, and to how it often undergoes changes or evolves in its spread.

As Cavalier points out, the book list was largely set up to become a meme:

  1. The meme’s subject is elitist in that it says something about the user’s level of intelligence. (“What? You haven’t read War and Peace?!)  This fosters (usually friendly) competition amongst friends.
  2. The meme has a whiff of injustice that stirs up indignance. (“How DARE the BBC say that?! GIMME THAT LIST!”)
  3. Filling out / answering the meme doesn’t take much time. …
  4. 100 books is perfect.  A nice, big milestone number. … People gravitate toward milestone, lucky, and zero-ending numbers in this culture.

The misrepresentation of the BBC to promote a jingoistic American reaction aside, the elitism and the indignation are elements I could do without in 2010 America. The first is too often cited to mean “liking something different from what I like or understand” or “having more education than I have,” and to express the user’s discomfort with this fact, and the second is an almost permanent state in the popular culture, whether focused on Briston Palin’s Dancing with the Stars win or congressional earmarks or the refereeing in the Penn State-Alabama game. Indeed, indignation lies at the heart of many appeals to the public and, arguably, has become a meme in itself.

Meme generally strikes me as an appropriate term for Internet phenomena, though its origins lie in British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Only the last repetitive syllable is lacking to put the term squarely in line with the focus of social networking. And it is a curiously appropriate form for book lists. As I looked into this cultural artifact – a unit of symbols, practices, or ideas that is imitated via communication channels and, the theorists suggest, evolve according to principles of natural selection – I found myself flying right back into the old academic discussions of fictions versus mythologies. I could hear the late literary critic Sir Frank Kermode intoning from his Sense of an Ending:

Myth operates within the diagrams of ritual, which presupposes total and adequate explanations of things as they are and were; it is a sequence of radically unchangeable gestures. Fictions are for finding things out, and they change as the needs of sense-making change. Myths are the agents of stability, fictions the agents of change. Myths call for absolute, fictions for conditional assent. (39)

In the relatively new “field” of memetics – itself a marker of the self-replicating quality of academic organisms, wherein departments mutate out of coined words and material on the subject is generated to maintain the departments, and vice versa – the myth would, I suppose, be the “successful” meme, the fiction a meme that may or may not endure.

All of it reminds me perversely of the childhood game “Whisper Down the Lane.”

Internet map

Photo by Matt Britt. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License.

“Meming” the literary canon, the type of self-referential act that would have delighted us through a modest Cabernet Sauvignon or two in the late 1980s, is eerily like the position of the Internet commentator in contemporary society. The blogger on Internet phenomena not only carries forward the memes she or he examines but generates an audience for unique content through trendy names, catchphrases, search engine optimization, meta keywords, and networking. That network carries the little “meme” of the blog or Web site or podcast along through social media and trackbacks. It may “mutate” or become distorted in the process – articles misinterpreted or misquoted, photographs digitally altered, content summarized – and some will simply die out in their original form.

And as in defenses of the scientific, measurable, quantifiable qualities of memetics, statistics and “hot topics” can track and record the transmission of the meme. In this way, the Internet is a bit like Iceland – that national storehouse of genetically homogeneous and well-documented genealogical material that is proving a gold mine for scientific research into the genetic disease. Like Iceland, what is on the Internet stays preserved on the Internet for eternity in one form or another, traceable through search engines in its original form and in its mutations. Here, information constitutes its own field of epidemiological study, both in the form of cultural artifacts and in the patterns of impressions left by the same.

If this gives Facebook users, article and blog posters, and mass emailers pause – it should. I have long pointed out that what you say on Facebook rapidly becomes public domain property, regardless of restricting your profile to your friends’ list. Through shares, photo albums, tags, computer screen shots taken of your page, hacks, forwards, trackbacks, shared links, what have you, what you write and post is out for anyone to see. You can avoid it altogether; you can try to manage it by being more aware of what you say and post; or you can throw caution to the winds and risk eternally being locatable in the pasties you wore to your college roommate’s Halloween Party in 2002.

That part is a matter of choice.

But what of the literary canon, which launched this whole investigation? Well, if the book list circulating is any evidence, it’s still quite solidly with us, albeit with more (white) female authors than previously. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Thomas Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, William Golding – fully half the list could be out of my high school required or summer reading. I found I had read 41 of the books (mostly in college) and partially read 9 others.

Its memetic perpetuation makes it all the more likely it will stay much the same for years to come. But I’ll be interested to watch the mutations. Perhaps we should add Machine of Death to it, delete Bridget Jones’s Diary, and send it on its way thus altered.

After all, conscious intent is far more deeply engaged with information transmission than in the passage of Type-2 diabetes.

For the record, my favorites remain the Chronicles of Narnia, Winnie-the-Pooh, and the Harry Potter series. I am still glad I have never read Tess of the D’Urbervilles. And I hear War and Peace makes a lovely doorstop.

A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good.

Samuel Johnson

ADDENDUM/UPDATE – 12/3/10: I had time today (mirabile dictu) to look into some recommended TED videos, one of which is the following 2002 presentation on memes by philosopher Dan Dennett. I am relatively new to this “science” of memetics, so I am delighted by further discussion and explanation. I hesitate over Dennett’s statement that “hosts work hard to spread these ideas to others” in conjunction with his assertion that “most of the cultural spread that goes on” is unthinking; his assumption that most of us do seek something more important than ourselves and pursue it beyond our self-interest; and the fairly narrow, binary tension he sets up  between cultures and their artifacts (which must be taken in the context of virulent post-9/11 anti-Islamic ideology, to be sure). And in the necessarily limited parameters of his 16-minute talk, the resurfacing of concepts long after they have “passed,” the possibilities for a third way (see an upcoming blog for this!) beyond the binary, and the role of values are not well covered.

But I think it is useful to consider his talk in the mix of ideas – so I present it here:

This TED video is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license.