Memes & Marketing—High vs. Low Fidelity

In The Selfish Gene, a book we consider seminal and pivotal at Wunderkind, Richard Dawkins talks about one key difference between how genes replicate in biology vs. how memes replicate in society—the fidelity of replication. In other words, how perfect is the copy each time a strand of DNA replicates? Well, quite perfect when it comes to normal DNA/RNA activity. Our bodies, and all the countless cellular processes within them, function so well in large part because instructions are copied perfectly.

When it comes to memes, which are like strands of DNA but made up of ideas, generally speaking the replication process is low fidelity. Which means that the sequence of ideas can get altered or corrupted quite easily. All you have to do is play a little broken telephone game to know how quickly a meme can be altered beyond recognition, if you’re not paying close attention.

But what Dawkins couldn’t have anticipated when he published his world-famous book in 1976 was the advent of the internet and information technology. Now, the replication of a meme can be extremely high-fidelity. When you play a Youtube video, you’ve replicated the meme within that video perfectly. When you upload, copy, share, forward, etc—you are replicating a meme at high fidelity.

This has interesting implications for brands, for example. Whereas there was more considerable drift and inadvertent corruption of memes in the past, today you can preserve and copy a meme nearly perfectly, ad infinitum.

But there’s another factor that works against our new ability to make high fidelity copies of memes: User generated content. The very technology that allows perfect replication—also allows users to manipulate and alter any meme to suit their whims. As human beings, we have two opposing, diabolical tendencies: we love to imitate, but we also love to innovate. As imitators with information technology, we are increasing the fidelity of replication—and preserving the memetic integrity of brands and content. As innovators, we are reducing or even destroying the replication process.

Marketers and branding experts today now must contend with these opposing tendencies—and somehow navigate through them with increasing agility. More than ever, we are living in interesting times.