April 13, 2007
The Orphan Meme 

After some recent experiences, I believe that as the Internet and sites such as Wikipedia and Youtube continue to grow, the orphan meme may someday cease to exist.

An orphan meme is a unit of cultural information, that once lodged in the memory, is stored and forgotten after key elements of the meme decay and prevent its dissemination (e.g., the musical tune fragment that you remember but can't duplicate sufficiently well enough to propagate or elicit recognition from another person, the short story you read decades ago, the storyline of which you recall, but neither the author nor the title, the TV broadcast that implanted words and images in your memory that no one else seems to recognize).

This very concept of the orphan meme is something I discovered via my interaction with friends and the web. One of the first examples that emerged was due to an entry made by my friend Lenka.

Like many of us, I thought that maybe I had imagined this (a fever dream, perhaps?). Of course, this example might easily be an argument that orphan memes are orphaned with good reason, perhaps to preserve the sanity of the meme host, or to prevent the meme host from being the target of derision, mocking laughter, and social irrelevancy.

More recent examples had their origin in my wistful recollections of my earlier youth (those carefree 1980's). Kicking back on the beach, reading the science factoids and science fiction of Omni Magazine. Wow, what a cool story that was, about a no-longer-United States . . . what was the title? Dammit. It was a great story, and it had an Emperor Norton character, but not the Emperor Norton. Shit, I can't even remember what year the magazine was, or the author.

(FYI, yesterday, approximately 26 years later, I rediscovered these answers).

I had great memories of the cool TV shows that could be found in the 1980's, when television still seemed to be trying (and MTV still played music). Night Flight on the USA Network, for example -- they played new music, alternative before they figured out they could use 'alternative' for a name (and oh, how I fell in love with that woman's voice). They played short films, experimental films . . . they even played a film on the Church of the Subgenius! (Yeah, I'd love to see how the three-fisted tales of Bob would be be perceived by the FCC today). There was that Power-Rangers-type show, with the goofy dialogue dubbed in, and re-cut "educational films." And once, late at night, there was that cartoon . . .there was beer, and speeding cars, and a mushroom cloud . . . was it early Beavis & Butthead? I'm not sure, I just can't remember . . .

(FYI, last week, approximately 20 years later, I rediscovered these answers).

And even when the identifying characteristics of the meme are retained, how can you fully share them when the meme-originator can no longer be shared? Like that NBC show that was cancelled after a few weeks, but I swear that there was this brilliant Laurie Anderson performance piece about sperm whales travelling at Mach 20 . . . . yeah, try and share that with a friend without being able to point at the video . . .

Will my children remember and access more with the Internet, or less? We all enjoy watching Adult Swim, which, now that I look at it, is the millennial torch-bearer of Night Flight (yeah, I know they're not the same, but I'll take what I can get). But, once these images of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Shin Chan and FLCL and Venture Brothers are lodged in their brains, will it be the same when they can readily re-access those same images and sounds online, whenever they feel like it? Is the Internet an extension of their memory, something they can plug into like a flash memory card?

Does this make us smarter?

Well, I'm a 42 year old man who watches cartoons. I think I already know the answer to that question.

posted by James  [link] | |

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April 13, 2007
The Orphan Meme by James



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