The Fool archetype as an agent of evolution: an introduction to Internet meme ecology

In the last post we introduced the idea of conceptual and sensual memes. In general, sensual memes are more infectious than those based on concepts. This idea (this meme!) is nothing new: an image is worth a thousand words, they say. This is because sensual stimulation appeals to a more primitive part of the brain, which requires less processing. It is energetically cheaper: sensual reactions do not need to pull scarce mental resources for the abstraction that language and rational discourse necessitate. Due to their advantages in this regard, it is a common strategy in marketing, propaganda and other forms of memetic warfare to employ sensual memes to attack conceptual memes. If you want proof, just look at tobacco: strong scientific against smoking still has huge trouble with the inherent coolness of the act.

Satire is the most effective way of destroying an aesthetic. It usually implies subverting the original meme by tweaking it so that it can become an object of ridicule. For satire to succeed, the tweaked meme has to be more infectious than the original: either by appealing to an even more primal instinct, or by being more prevalent and having better transmission channels. This process can be engineered, by analyzing the meme to be attacked and identifying its weaknesses. Usually, though, satire emerges spontaneously when enough people are exposed to a meme. Some individuals develop very early in their lives a naturally corrosive sense of humor. This sense of humor can be defined as a certain kind of intuition which allows the individual to see potential ridiculousness in any idea; a socially rewarded ability, which explains the magnetic influence of the Fool archetype. The Fool usually sits alongside the King or the Hero, sharing the same dangers they do. He escapes them not by struggle, but through his cleverness. He has a certain inmunity to the spell of earthly power: he can speak the truth because no one takes him seriously. Conversely, he does not need to take others seriously. He has the special power of debunking myths.

In real life, every time an aesthetic is ridiculed, the sensual memes in which it is based are killed: the myth is debunked. Human physical communities are usually small enough for the subverted, satirized meme to reach everyone who had seen the original version. A recurrent character in prison movies is that of the shot caller, a tough convict who is known and feared by all the others. A plot point is usually made of the hero humiliating the shot caller on everybody’s sight: the myth is fallen, and the hero earns everybody’s respect. This is because the image of the shot caller as a dangerous man is fully substituted in the convicts’ collective inconscious by that of his defeat. In other words, ridicule is meme substitution.

The Internet, however, is different from real life. It allows sensual memes, especially visual ones, to reach practically all corners of the globe. If a meme is sufficiently shared, it will sooner or later find its way to the mind of a Fool, who will instinctively probe it for weaknesses. It thus increases the probability of somebody attempting to debunk the myth. However, once this happens, the ridiculed version of the meme has to be shared again from scratch, and is now competing against the original meme, which has been shared worldwide. Consequently, the Internet allows for the original and the satirized meme to coexist in the vastness of the Web. The echo chamber concept is related to this phenomenon: people are simply not aware of the ways their political ideas can sound comical to other people. In Internet memetic ecology, this means that ideas which in real life would be wholly ridiculed and destroyed can always find a niche in some community and survive. It is well known that the Internet has been instrumental to the thriving of all kinds of bizarre and fringe aesthetic subcultures.

This accelerative process to which sensual memes are subject does not affect conceptual memes so much. The reason is simple: conceptual memes usually require the host to read or otherwise make some intellectual effort. The life cycle of conceptual memes has not changed that much since the pre-Internet era, because the time required for reading and reflection imposes a bottleneck in their infection rate. Conceptual memes are like creatures of the deep sea abyss: they are not affected by superficial and temporary changes, evolving slowly and robustly in the dark. The geographic reach of written memes, though, has still grown thanks to the Web, so the result is an equally extensive but slower diffusion of the meme, compared to their sensual counterparts. In our analogy, it would be as if the ocean had become bigger.

The better-paced expansion of conceptual memes allows for a more gradual exposition of them to the attacks of Fools. This makes the meme more resilient, as it has the chance to adapt to counter-arguments, mutating bit by bit. In the end, concept-based memes which have survived for a long time tend to have an impressive discursive arsenal. Comparatively, sensual memes have an explosive virality which helps them grow quickly. Even if they are subject to satire, since they are so rapidly shared, they always find a refuge in one community or another. Being easy to swallow, they always find spaces within the vastness of the Internet in which to proliferate. The Web is such a rich environment that it allows for their survival. Statistically, there will always be somebody’s mind ripe for the taking.

There is a practical example which more or less fits this model: the competitive relation between hardcore porn and the NoFap movement. Hardcore porn has only become developed and refined thanks to the Web. Many bizarre fetishes and extreme practices would have never become so widespread via VHS or print-magazine vectors of transmission. Paradoxically, this makes them vulnerable to conceptually robust rival memeplexes such as the NoFap movement. NoFap, as a memeplex, has built very strong arguments against porn through years of being exposed to an adversarial climate; drinking from both secular, scientific and religious sources, its adherents have found a way to counter the deep, sensual pull of porn through conceptual machinery. Hardcore porn has gone soft (pun very much intended).

In summary: for sensual memes the Internet means an increased ease of reproduction and transmissibility. This easy survival makes them become “soft” and vulnerable to the Fools’ attacks. Conceptual memes, on the other hand, do not gain much in terms of reproduction and transmissibility compared to what they already had in printed media. Nonetheless, the Internet does allow them to be subject to more interactions which “train” them against counter-concepts (they harden). All in all, different evolutionary survival strategies.

As a final word, it has to be kept in mind that the meme categories described above are not absolute nor mutually exclusive: a memeplex can have both sensual and conceptual components. Extremely successful supermemeplexes, like Christianity or Communism, generally are built on both.