virus: 200 words for snow

Grant Callaghan (
Tue, 3 Jun 1997 23:28:47 -0700 (PDT)

Someone asked why the meme that there are 200 words for snow in the
Inuit language keeps replicating itself. The answer is that someone
used it once in a widely-broadcast communication and lots of other
people saw it, liked it, and latched on to it so they could use it
in their communications. It is a tool that helped them put across
a point. It was successful, so others took it up. It helped them
raise their status among their peers in a type of transaction.

There is a basic misconception generated by books like those of Brodie
and Lynch that memes are always generated by contagion, like viruses
entering the body. This is true in some cases, but
memes are much more often acquired by people imitating successful
behavior. Just as one chimp will see another use a stick to get
ants out of a rotten log when he is hungry and pass that behavior
on to other chimps, and a bird in England learning to take the tops
off bottles of milk and passing that behavior on to other birds of
the same species, so do humans find ways to accomplish things and
pass on what they have learned by example. When those who pick them
up use them successfully, they enter the pool of successful behaviors
and memes are born. Picking them up is usually a conscious choice
by people who have decided to use the new tools. What kind of tool
is used depends on what they want to accomplish. A teenager who wants
to impress his peers and outrage his parents will spike his hair or
pierce his body parts because that is how he saw others do it. The
behavior does not just take him over against his will like a germ
invading his body. He acquires it in order to use it.

Grant Callaghan

What you seek is what you get.