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Surprising Science

How to Make a Meme (Hint: Read Darwin)

Electronic word-of-mouth is essential for spreading today's most important ideas. Using Darwin's theory of evolution, we can better understand how ideas become popular. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Why certain ideas become popular at a particular time has always been something of a mystery, but interaction designer Mark Bardsley believes we can better understand the rise of a catchphrase by applying some of Darwin’s evolutionary ideas: “Marketing output (genes) begins with intention (cell) and catches on when it resonates with a single person (individual), who then spreads it to neighboring people (group), who then spill out to spread it to wider, more distant circles of groups (species). Through the process of spreading, the original marketing intent both changes and is changed by the carriers.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Given the importance of individual participation in the dissemination of today’s ideas (yes, we’re talking about social media), yesterday’s concept of static ideas that “stay on message” no longer applies. “Fair to say that marketing changes us as much as we change marketing. Every piece of content–a catchphrase, tagline, suggestion, or image–faces evolutionary pressure at all levels,” says Bardsley, “which is the very thing that morphs into success and/or iteration into success.” If we understand how a meme works to change people’s behavior, is it possible to repeat the process at will?

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