Saturday, April 18, 2009

What the heck is a meme anyway?

In recent weeks, I've been accused of something no one has even accused me of before: creating a meme. The charge seems weak to me, though, based on my understanding of "meme." But let's review.

On 26 February 2009, I wrote a blog for CMS Watch called "A Reality Checklist for Vendors" in which I enumerated 15 things that a CMS software vendor (but really, any software vendor) needs to do these days in order to stay relevant. Things like posting a free downloadable eval version of your software on your company web site; eating your own dogfood (the vendor should use its own software to create its website); and having one pricesheet for all customers (we don't quote ten different prices to ten different customers). Simple things, basic sanity-check items. For the full list, go here.

Not long thereafter, on 17 March, Michael Marth wrote a blog at ("Introducing the CMS Vendor Meme") giving Day Software's answers to all 15 checklist items in my Reality Checklist. Not only that, Michael created a scoring system, assigned scores to Day's answers, and challenged ("tagged") several other vendors to respond in like manner.

This set off a flood of responses from vendors (including many vendors who weren't tagged by anyone), and the results are still coming in. The situation is well-captured by Jon Marks in his excellent series of blog posts here, where (incidentally) he calls it a Celebrity CMS Deathmatch.

As a result of all this, I've been accused of starting a meme, which makes me want to understand "meme" better. So I've done a little digging and found the internet definitions of meme rather unsatisfying. They seem sloppy, semantically speaking. Maybe that's just in the nature of memes.

Some definitions equate meme with slang. (But in that case, why not just stick with slang?) Other definitions point in the direction of slang with a pop-culture theme. Or anything on the internet that has a catchy phrase associated with it. It gets even sloppier: If you go to, you find things like Yo Dawg, Advice Dog, and I Like Turtles. (But oddly, not WTF?)

Some people feel that meme gives memetics a bad name.

What I've decided is that it's easier for me to understand meme in terms of its characteristics rather than a declarative definition. From what I can tell, a meme has characteristics of:

1. Theme: A meme captures a theme
2. Originality: in a new way, with new nuancing
3. Compositionality: New nuance is achieved by combining other terms and themes.
4. Emergent lexical cohesion (tm): Through suitable juxtaposition of imagery, slang, conceptual archetypes, etc., it becomes apparent to the first-time listener that a familiar notion is encapsulated in the meme. That is, a person hearing it for the first time can synthesize the intended meaning, even if the meaning is unexpected.
5. Transmissibility: The meme is easily communicated from one person to another.
6. Contagion: A meme usually spreads. If it didn't, it wouldn't enter the common lexicon.

That's still not a satisfying definition of "meme," to me, but it captures a lot more of it than the definitions I've seen floating around on the Web.

So I guess maybe I am guilty of creating a meme, if "We Get It" combined with "checklist" combined with "CMS Vendors" produces a meme. But it seems weakly reachable somehow.

"10 Things About {X}" seems to qualify as a meme, though.

Tagging someone to get them to participate in a meme-off seems not a meme but a pattern. But then again, maybe patterns are memes.

And so, to finish off this post, I invite commenters to answer the following queston: How many memes you can find in this blog post? I see quite a few. But I am interested in knowing what others see in terms of memes.

Also, a challenge (extra points, and attribution, to anyone who answers this correctly). Explain the following meme:

厚黑學 厚黑学

(It's one of my favorites.)


  1. With the help of Google Translate, Googling and Wikipedia I would say 厚黑學 厚黑学 denotes the "tick face, black heart" school of thought, which claims that in order to accumulate great power one needs both a "tick face" - i.e. the ability to hide one's intention and a "black heart", i.e. the unscrupulous use of force. My attempt at translation would be "black-hearted poker face". In some way it reminds me of the renaissance philosophy of Machiavellism.

  2. Lars: Congratulations for figuring it out. "Tick" should of course be "thick." (Or I guess in German, dick. But...)

    The whole history of "Thick Face Black Heart" is kind of interesting (too long to repeat here but well worth a little research for those who are curious). "Thick" here is kind of like "thick-skinned" in the sense of "unemotional." Poker face is apt. "Black heart" is like indifference to cruelty; unapologetic ruthlessness. There's also an element of hypocrisy and disingenuousness; being willing to do literally anything to reach a goal. So yes, Machiavelli is a good Western analogy.

    Sehr gut!

    "Black heart"

  3. Anonymous1:52 PM

    Interesting expression. A couple of thoughts on the language. The phrase as you posted it, 厚黑學 厚黑学, is actually the same phrase (hou4 hei1 xue2) repeated twice. The first phrase, 厚黑學, uses traditional characters and the second, 厚黑学, simplified (the only difference is the third character).

    厚 is thick, and is interpreted as thick face, 黑 is black, and is interpreted as black heart, and 学 is theory (the character is used in other contexts to mean school (noun) and study (verb)). I.e., "Thick Black Theory." Sounds like a Starbucks treatise on making coffee.

  4. Drawn from a formula for mental toughness devised in a 1911 handbook for success called "Thick Black Theory" (which has been banned in China ever since), this book argues that there can be no real enlightenment without a full awareness of the dark side. To achieve success in professional and personal lives, one must "thicken" one's face to create a shield that perserves natural self-esteem, and "blacken" one's heart. The result is a definition of the successful modern business hero as a person of unceasing contemplation and unfettered action.

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