Last year, my friends and I did something us dignified collegiate types often do–we held a spontaneous dance party. It was about an hour in duration, and for much of that time we each threw down radically different dance moves, some of us really boogey-ing and others (this kid) sticking to the cautious white-boy shoulder-sway. Only once did we all do the same dance. Only once did we move as one. For that you can thank Beyonce. Before I continue, I recommend that you take a break from Gangnam Styling and bask in a little Bootylicious nostalgia….
There you have it. An indelible pop video that, as a certain rapper reminded us, happens to be one of the best of all time (of all time). And, as it turns out, a wildly successful meme. The dance, the close, that utterly macabre robot hand–all have passed into the pantheon of pop culture immortality.
Why is this? Well, memes, like animals, have to struggle to survive. And just like said animals, the better equipped a meme is for survival, the more likely it will forge ahead in the struggle. This idea–that memes evolve like living creatures–is part of a theory called Universal Darwinism. Made famous by biologist Richard Dawkins, this theory states that Darwin’s theory of evolution applies not just to actual species, but to ideas as well. Darwinian theory isn’t just the mechanism by which animals operate–it’s the mechanism by which the world operates.
According to this theory, a meme, in order to propagate successfully, must have what’s called differential fitness–the ability to be widely and recognizably replicated.”Single Ladies” has this quality in spades, due in no small part to its behavioral component. The song might’ve been modestly successful on its own, but because it became associated with a series of memorable, easy to replicate dance moves, it pulled ahead of the pack. Adding to the song’s differential fitness is the fact that many of lyrics actually mirror the dance movements, making them easy to remember and almost impossible to mess up. (Take that, “Macarena”). That’s why this meme has not had to adapt all that much to survive over the past several years–it was already well-formed and formidable coming out of the gate.
A common criticism of meme theory is that it provides a glum, reductionist framework through which to look at human life. We’re merely machines waiting for our buttons to be pressed, waiting for that Beyonce video that just cries out “meme-ify me!” I understand this criticism, but I reject it. To me, meme theory is actually highly optimistic, because, as Susan Blackmore discusses in her novel The Meme Machine, it focuses on our greatest, most unique ability as a species; the ability to imitate. “Herd mentality” is often mentioned in a negative context–it conjures up images of dogmatic devastation and mindless mob scenes. However, let us not forget that the same process of imitation that caused human beings to march in lock-step with fascists also allows us to learn how to cast our ballots in a democratic society; that allows us to express ourselves through the understanding of artistic forms, and the mastery of particular athletic movements. We may be meme machines, but we can always be active ones, for the more we learn about memes, the more we can control their influence on us, and, more importantly, the more successfully we can propagate our own. And, as a special bonus, dance to some Sasha Fierce. To wit: