Re: virus: 200 words for snow

Grant Callaghan (
Wed, 4 Jun 1997 09:46:33 -0700 (PDT)

On Wed, 4 Jun 1997, Reed Konsler wrote:

> Date: Tue, 3 Jun 1997 23:28:47 -0700 (PDT)
> From: Grant Callaghan <>
> 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.
> -------------------------
> Grant, could you please read that paragraph again? This is an example
> of a constuct which is tightly circular. From my perspective you have
> said "meme X propogates because it is a meme and propogates as memes
> propogate". I was questioning why this meme, specifically, persists
> despite lack of support...what "good memes" does it contain, what
> weaknesses does it specifically tack advantage of? Is is random? I think
> not, and in understanding it's nature we might reveal our blindness and
> discover a host of "fellow-travellers" taking advantage of the same
> process.
> Why did the originator use it as an example?
Because it seemed to fit what he was trying to do at the time.

> How did it get (and continue to get) past fact-checking discriminators?
If it was first used in a newspaper article, there probably weren't any.

> Why did other people remember it, in the hurricane of forgotten memes?
For the same reason you remember one girl's face out of the thousands
you see every day. When things look good to us, we remember them.

> How did it evolve?
The same way that all memes evolve, through usage in different

> Why do so many people use it to make so many different points?
Because it seems to fit the point they are tyring to make.

> Why does it's use raise the status of it's users, especially considering
> that it is false (ouch, I say that only to be brief)?
For the same reason that telling a good joke raises your prestige among
the group to which you are talking. For the same reason that words
like "cool" and "hip" gain currency and are imitated by the people
who hear them. Truth or falsity have little to do with it. People
imitate what they like and feel that they can use. "The Lost World"
is full of false ideas but these ideas will be repeated over and over
by people who saw or read about the movie.

> How does the revelation of it's lack of foundation change the meaning?
It has very little to do with it. It's the idea that is contagious.

> What will you think the next time you read something using
> "400 words for snow" as an example?
The same thing I though when I just saw you use it. It is serving the
purpose for which you are using it. You are using it to make a different
point, but you are using it and have just propagated it to hundreds or
thousands of other minds on the Internet.

> Why do you now think it is a false meme? On my say so? On Steven
> Pinker's authority? Who do you trust? What are your standards
> of evidence?
I have no idea how you would separate a "true" meme from a "false" meme.
I do separate fact from fiction and will now probably use the word
for snow meme as an example of fiction, but use it I probably will.
In fact, I just did.