The newest “crime” on the Internet has nothing to do with hacking or identity hijacking. Instead, it’s meme-laundering — the willful use of flimsy ideas and half-formed academic theories to win projects, book deals and TED Talk invitations. And, judging by the initial response to a critical review by Evgeny Morozov of a new TED Book that spawned all this meme-laundering talk, a lot of people are guilty of meme-laundering these days.
That person you follow on Twitter who took a clever tweet about a new product and eventually transformed it into a Kickstarter project? The person who launched a Tumblr based on a single picture and then got a book deal or speaking gig? All of them are guilty, to some degree, of meme-laundering. These are all harmless examples, but what happens when the same mentality extends to the sciences or economics? One senses that if Malcolm Gladwell’s enormously popular books had come out a few years later, they likely would have first appeared as a series of animated GIFs and a viral Tumblr. At its core, meme-laundering is all about taking a relatively complex issue and distilling it down to a pithy commentary that can then be easily shared and distributed across the Internet. The pithier it is, the easier it is to launder.
Meme-laundering takes the idea of Internet sharing and distribution one step further, though, by adding what is to many an unwholesome commercial aspect. It’s not just sharing ideas for the sake of fame in your own social circles, it’s about using these ideas to launch a whole cottage-industry of books, projects and other commercially-lucrative projects. TED is perhaps the poster-child for this practice, as Reuter’s Felix Salmon further highlights. This is true of TED mostly because it has become so ubiquitous. What started as a single conference for a limited audience has become a Web phenomenon, spawning a growing mix of books, radio programs, TV shows, and even online classes. And TED is not alone. You could throw just about any big-name "ideas conference" into the mix as well.
Generating all these memes, though, is hard work. The charge brought up by Felix Salmon, Evgeny Morozov and others is that many of these “memes” are really just flimsy ideas that don’t stand up to intellectual scrutiny. And, when even the creator of the meme realizes an idea is flimsy, there is the temptation to season the meme with a little extra narrative flavor. Many see the unfortunate case of Jonah Lehrer in this light: Confronted with the insatiable need of his audience to generate new memes and new ideas, he eventually got caught with his hands in the Ideas Cookie Jar.
Thus far, meme-laundering has been described as a supply-side problem — that the people who should be “punished” are the people who are supplying us with the memes. But what if we choose, instead, to view this from a demand-side perspective? In short, dear reader, it is YOU who are responsible for all of these memes competing to make it into the popular mainstream to become books, projects and TED Talks. In a world head-over-heels in love with Top 10 lists, most popular articles, and viral videos, the demand for these memes is truly insatiable. No event these days, no matter it’s scale or importance, is truly worthy of attention until it has generated a meme.
Consider how incredibly easy it is to go from meme to commercially lucrative opportunity. Social networking sites like Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook make it effortless to distribute these memes to hundreds, if not thousands, of followers. Then crowdsourcing platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo make it possible to fund projects within days, weeks or months. New innovations in digital publishing make it possible for unpublished authors to bypass the traditional process and get e-book pamphlets into the hands of readers within days. For a generation that grew up photographing, videotaping and documenting every aspect of their lives, getting up on the stage at TED seems like the next evolution of lives led in public rather than an academic milestone.
You might even say that we are, to refer to the discovery of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and paleontologist Niles Eldredge, living within a punctuation — a time in which ideas are forming and evolving at an unprecedented pace. Armed with digital tools, average people with great ideas are often just as effectuve as great people with average ideas in pushing forward the intellectual debate on topics in the sciences and the liberal arts. Years from now, when historians look back at the fossil record for the digital age, they will be puzzled by what appears to be a punctuated equilibrium — a Punk Eek of ideas. Which, come to think of it, sounds like a meme in the making, just ready to be laundered.
Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautifuland Most Wonderful."
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