Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Play Games, Save World

I did some bad planning with my food intake the other day and started out by eating loads of chocolate for breakfast. It got me into a crazy sugar high and me and Love started debating memes. Why they exist and how they come to exist and what they say about humankind. /startramble

Love started out by asking me how long cultural references will stay around. Will our children understand stuff like "over 9000", "rick rolling" and "mankriks wife" or will these things cease to exist at some point, only vaguely remembered by old farts like us (as we will be then)? I argued that stuff never go away once they're on the internet, so eventhough new things always will be added to the pool, there will always be a possibility that these old things resurface to make a come back, kind of like movie themes and fashion always seem to make cycles (we're currently back in the 80s it seems).

I then went on to ask what makes a meme a meme anyway? What exactly is it that makes a person pick out something, seemingly at random, turn it into a "sketch" and why do people catch on and build on that? Isaac Asimov wrote some fictional novels around a theory that human actions en masse actually aren't random at all, but quite predictable. In this huge group, humankind if you like, we actually act along mathematical certainties, and as long as we know enough about different factors we can predict how a situation will turn out in the end. Inspired by this theory I speculated that memes aren't random at all, but they do all in fact have some common factor. Something that explains why it turns into a meme and why people catch on to it (because I bet there are millions of memes our there that never turned into real memes). We started working through different memes and we found something that seemed to be common for many of the biggest memes.

Most people know of "Sparta", the abovementioned "over 9000" and "rick rolling" (mankrik's wife is WoW specific and therefore a little special). There's also "pingas", "F*cking magnets", "Pedobear", "What is this I don't even", "Horatio" and the list goes on and on. A great place to check out memes is which I have written about earlier. You really can get stuck there forever.

What do these memes have in common? There seems to be a certain "lameness-factor" involved that correlates to how big a meme gets. If the original concept is very lame or perhaps "uncool" would be a better word for it, the meme of that concept will become huge. Someone screaming "THIS IS SPARTA!" would for example not be considered as an especially cool line. It's actually rather lame. Someone screaming "What is his power level?" "It's over 9000!" is also something we probably think of as uncool. Rick Astleys "Never gonna give you up" is also very uncool. Horatio is extremely uncool. And so on. The thing is, they're all so uncool they in fact become cool. It's like you see this thing and think "hah that is just so uncool, I have to show it to someone". So it's not just boring and uninteresting, it's jokingly uncool.

When people create a meme out of something extremely uncool, they try to catch the very essence of the uncoolness, which in a sense will make it cool. Screaming "THIS IS SPARTA!" has, by being highlighted through a meme, gone from an uncool thing to a cool thing say. In this sense, memes are making the world a better place by turning all these lame stuff into really hip and culturally correct cool stuff!

And everyone wants a part of it. Once a meme is big enough, anyone can and wants to create. Even if you don't actually create a picture or write a text to the meme, you're part of the creative process just by spreading it along. I think all of you reading this text has at some point been part of the meme creative process just by going "hah, check this out" to some friend. Because if no one was interested in looking at it, no one would create it.

I saw a talk over at TEDtalks made by Jane McGonigal where she talked about the creative force that exists in the gaming community. She thought that if we could make "boring" stuff like recycling into a game that's fun enough, everyone would do it. Like if succeeding with something in Farmville would somehow recycle a soda can or if getting an epic in WoW would somehow give someone who needed it food for a day, recycling and starvation would be way less of a problem (these are not actually her examples, I made them up myself). But this creative force isn't limited to gaming of course, in a way I feel like memes are the real example of what could be done if people just feel like doing it. Memes are seemingly meaningless, yet the combined labor hours put into them are... insane. And like I said, anyone can and wants to take part of them to some extent, memes are just one thing but just think about all the blogs, reviews, forum posts etc that are written each second.

It reminded me of the novel 1984 (SPOILER HERE!) where George Orwells "country" is at constant fake war just to encourage the citizenship to always give their all to the state. Only by having this fictional enemy, argued Orwell, could you get people to put all their creative efforts into action. Only then can you press all those labor hours out of people without having them waste it on not doing anything. Memes have shown that you definitely don't need some threatening at all to have people spend hours of their "spare" time doing things. All you need is to find a way to convince people it is fun, and almost even more importantly, make it easy enough to do.

I make it sound easy of course, but building a correlation between saving the real world by saving Azeroth isn't something easily done. In fact I don't think anyone has come up with a really good idea for how to do this. I know of one good example of how this could be done - there is something called Flattr, in which you provide a set sum of money each month to be distributed among things you like on the internet. This can be just about anything, a blog, a video, a text, a picture. As long as there is a Flattr button next to it which you can press, you'll be able to distribute some of your set money to that which you like. Your money is then distributed evenly, so that if you provide 10 euro each month and just press one button, that button owner will get 10 euro. But if you press 10 buttons, they each get 1 euro. What I like about it is the simplicity. I don't mind paying for things, I pay for loads of things (just the other day I loaned a book at the library that I liked so much I immediately went and bought it). As long as the prices are somewhat reasonable, people will buy stuff if only they are simple enough. Problem right now is that no one has Flattr because there are no buttons, and there are no buttons because no one has Flattr. People just have to catch on for it to work.

And I think this can be converted to creation and action as well. People will create and act upon anything as long as it is simple and motivating enough. And by simple and motivating I really mean "fun". When we spend all those hours playing WoW it is because of a combination of its simplicity and various motivations that contribute to making it fun to play, to do. And this shouldn't be limited to gaming or memes. Of course I want to make the poor people less poor, and save endangered animals, but it is not something I think about doing very often (unfortunately). Imagine if doing good stuff was part of your everyday life in a simple way? I don't mean that every button we click and action we take also make us donate money to something good (although that would be an interesting way to spread money across the world), but if you could find a good way to have this creative force, and if all these labor hours people spend on creating memes and writing stuff on their blogs could also be put into good use somehow (beside the already good use it's doing)... imagine the possibilites.

I'm not sure any of this made any sense, I am probably still in that sugar rush. /endramble


  1. Thanks for the link to the Internet Meme Database. I had no idea that site existed. I love memes. Well... most of them.

  2. It's Flattr, not Flickr.

    (made by some of the creators of The Pirate Bay I believe).

  3. @Elfi
    Yeah that site is awesome, a great way to kill some boring hours ^^

    Thanks for pointing it out. I have no idea why I wrote Flickr, I must've read/done something with it just before writing this post. I blame my sugar high <.<

  4. I was flicking through the channels the other day, and saw Sparta playing on Telemundo. All I could think about for hours was kicking someone and screaming "ESTE UN SPARTA!!!"

  5. I love that memes site. I didn't know other people had really heard of it. Here's one of my favorites right now (Serene Branson with Picard)