Highly contagious: Sparking ideas

You have experienced it: things go viral. You have seen how Gangnam Style repeatedly flooded your Facebook news feed and how the Harlem Shake was recreated in yet another way. While the spreading of these videos seems trivial, the underlying principles of such viral behavior are far away from being it. It even plays a tremendous role in human evolution. How so?

Evolution of ideas

Abstractly spoken, videos can be seen as transporters of information such as articles or books. Surely, their usefulness may differ, but nevertheless, they were all born as “ideas” and got spread through sharing. But the sharing process in general isn’t restricted to only social media, not even to only human beings; it is a basic principle found everywhere in nature where cognition and group-behavior comes in.

For example, out of several groups of crows, some individual crows have been captured and marked while the researchers wore a unique recognizable “predator mask”. Later when the researchers were going through the territories again while wearing this mask, the captured and marked crows showed scolding and mobbing behaviors towards the mask-wearers. The researchers repeated this and after some while, not only did marked crows scold them, but also the ones which weren’t captured before and didn’t experience the “predator mask” but learned its danger through the behavior of the other scolding crows. Here, some crows which had first-hand experience “shared” their knowledge with the rest of the group in order to give the whole group higher chances of surviving. An idea from one individual being got spread over to the whole group.

Collective learning

While one member of a group is sharing an idea, it takes another one to receive it. The sharing here can be done voluntarily by the sharer (as with the crows) or not when the receiver simply copies the behavior from the others.

This technique of collective learning by sharing behavior and copying from each other has played a huge rule in human evolution. A single member of a group brings up an idea. If it’s bad, i.e. putting your hand into a fire (the others see you screaming in pain), it won’t be replicated; if it’s good, i.e. harnessing the energy of fire in a wiser way (using it for warmth), it gets replicated by the others and “stored” in the group’s collective knowledge. Thus it gets disconnected from the idea’s originator and even his death can’t take the idea away anymore.

The same pattern applies to everything which humanity has ever invented like hunting techniques and devices, agricultural techniques, technologies, languages, culture, religion, science and so on. It was spread because it turned out to be useful. The way in which ideas get replicated within the minds, is just like genes get replicated in a biological context. It’s survival of the fittest.

This abstract comparison was firstly introduced by biologist Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” where he coined the term “memetics”, the theory of evolutionary patterns in the abstract realms of our minds. The single abstract entity which is being spread, you probably know from another context, a meme. The term meme has been captured by internet culture and changed dramatically compared to its original definition, which is very ironic since memes, just like genes, just change over time; they “mutate” during the processes of replication, just like different versions of a joke or dialects of languages.

Breeding memes

Together we form a network of nodes for memes to pass on. Everyone of us is a node which spreads and reproduces ideas. That’s pretty similar to how our brain works where we got neurons connected to each other and when one fires and its signal is surpassing a certain threshold of another connected neuron it then fires as well; thus creating a neural firework. In our form of collective intelligence, memes are being reproduced if they satisfy rather complex criteria (is this idea good? What would others think of me if I did this? etc.).

Nevertheless, the principle is the same and you can try it out on your own . For example try to initiate an applause: It works best at social gatherings like at a cabaret or discussion where applauding is socially acceptable during the show (contrary to a theatre-play for example). At the cabaret there are some times when the cabaret artist has made a good joke but it’s not good enough yet so that everyone would instantly applaud. These are the exact moments. Everyone likes that joke but is not overwhelmed enough to automatically applaud, there is just potential, not yet action. Now start clapping on your own and if it’s the right moment it will spread within seconds like a bushfire. Congratulations, you have made a whole bunch of people clap on your own will.

There are many other ways where you can spread a certain behavior and you can see how the network then transmits it. Like Herman Melville did at the Turkish protests recently, when he simply started to stand in front of the cultural centre and just kept looking at it. For hours. Then people started to do the same thing and gathered there as well. It became a meme and spread.

It’s the same with sharing things on Facebook or Twitter of course. These social networks are the perfect manifestation of such highly abstract collective behavior. But it’s everywhere in our lives. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you are a part of this network, and as a part you participate in all kinds of processes where ideas get reinforced and others vanish. Like smiling at strangers, being polite, taking control of something etc.
If you think some kind of behavior is appreciated then you should go for it. Not only for yourself but for everyone since it might get replicated by others. If it’s bad, everybody will forget in an instant; if it’s good, you might have spread something which would go viral like crazy.


Header Image(s) from Pixabay & Gratisography

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