TED Conversations

Holly Arnold

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Are memes important for our survival? How can we draw on memetic theory to inspire ideas of sustainability that go viral?

Memes are elements of a culture or behavior that may be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means. Dan Dennet's TED talk addresses memes that are powerful because they inspire passionate, extremist behavior based on idealistic notions of freedom, justice, truth, communism, capitalism, and religion. While not always bad, memes can be destructive and result in conflict and death. Yet, memes have great potential benefit to humanity by eliciting behaviors that promote equality, peace, and sustainability. Sustainability in particular has been suggested to be the most important factor in determining the fate of humanity, as discussed by Paul Gildings. How can we harness the power of memes to inspire notions of patriotism, freedom, and justice that elicit a passionate response for the cause of sustainability, rather than a passionate response that leads to conflict?


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  • Mar 8 2012: Kevin allocca has a ted talk on viral videos that is quite relevant to this discussion! Tastemakers, like celebrities, community participation, and unexpectedness or uniqueness, were all components of successful viral videos. These were all things we mentioned for how to make sustainability go viral as well!
    • Mar 8 2012: Tastemakers are definitely key to determining what memes would be successful. It seems like other popular trends in our society, sustainability is now on the front line. In order for this meme to be spread it needs to continue to be fashionable and appealing to the masses. An article in Bloomberg Business Week discusses this topic. Is sustainable technology a fad or innovative? Much of the discussion is whether or not green initiatives deliver "real value," or if they will fade away soon. I think that the real value that must accompany a successful spread to sustainability is the intrinsic value that most people seek, either consciously, or subconsciously.
    • Mar 8 2012: I think it's also important when thinking about how to make sustainability go viral to think about how to make this idea long lasting. Among the enormous list of things that qualify as memes-from religion to the I Can Haz Cheeseburger cat- there are many (like religion) that have lasted for thousands of years, while there are also plenty (like the cheeseburger cat) that no one will remember a decade from now.

      Achieving sustainability as a culture is likely going to be a multi-generational project. In order to build a message that has that type of staying power I'm not sure if we want to look to internet memes for guidance.

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