Dear Batgirl, are memes fading?

We miss Batgirl. You see, when we were kids in the 1970s (yes, we admit it), Batman reruns on TV were big after school, just as in primetime Happy Days was the big thing on TV. We went “pow” in the schoolyard fighting like Robin. Schoolkids would come in after a showing of the Fonz recounting the latest hip saying. After one Happy Days episode, where naive teenager Richie helped a geeky relative get cool by catching pennies falling off his elbow, we spent the better part of a week’s recess trying to grab 30 or 40 coins. (OK, to try this, put your right arm straight up; bend your forearm back over your shoulder; your forearm should now be horizontal with the ground, with your elbow in front of you about eye level; now stack a series of coins above your elbow, then rapidly swing your arm forward and try to catch the coins in mid-air before they pass your waist and hit the ground…)

You get it. That was a meme.

We see fewer and fewer memes, or cultural viruses, coming from mass media. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Saturday Night Live on NBC was one launching pad for cultural pass-alongs, and hip comedians could get everyone saying the same things on Mondays. The Blues Brothers, Wayne’s World, Stuart Smally, all were comic riffs that people for some reason wanted to emulate. Alas, memes, those cultural ideas spread from one person to another like early Christianity or healthcare death panels, are getting harder to propagate with the fragmentation of media. While every ad agency in the land professes to help you build viral campaigns, we often wonder if “viral” has become totally randomized. Like the H1N1 Swine Flu, communication viruses mutate randomly until they eventually create the perfect version to become embedded in the culture of the moment. Because consumers themselves are creating so much content, their missives are just as likely to grab culture’s attention as anything a media conglomerate dreams up.

The bell curve front matches the back

If you work in marketing, sales or advertising, you’re in the business of memes, whether you know it or not. Your job is to influence people by spreading ideas, and yes you hope that they send those ideas on to others — that’s a meme. Alas, compounding the problem for marketers seeking to seed fads or needs or desires is that the lifespan of communal ideas is becoming truncated. Studies have shown that plotting the rise and fall of a viral phenomenon over time is equally as steep on the uptick as it is in the downswing. The Beatles gradually became a sensation and endured for decades. Skittles came and went in a week. If something suddenly becomes popular, it is just as likely to fade quickly. Culture, like the human body’s autoimmune system, can even reject memes if they seem too foreign; a dispassionate observer might argue Fox News’ and conservatives’ harsh rejection of plans to extend health insurance to 46 million citizens are a culture’s autoimmune system defense to a foreign object: an ethnic president from Chicago trying to expand urban support systems onto rural America. The issue of healthcare reform crested suddenly and unexpectedly this summer in the press, and just as quickly counter-forces drove the issue down in the polls. It wasn’t right or wrong; health care was just a meme that rose too high too fast, and fell off the logical popular cliff on the backside.

Easy come, easy go

So how do you get memes going? Here’s an interesting test if you are a marketer about to hire an agency to give you a social media “viral” campaign. Ask your agency, which is bragging about number of impressions and scope of “engagement” from its last viral successes, to plot the timeline of its past campaigns. Was it months? Weeks? Days? Hmm.

Add it up and we have fewer central cultural communication Petri dishes to seed memes; fragmented media which randomizes what gets transmitted; masses of consumers creating their own content just as likely to go viral; and shortened attention spans meaning even if your meme does succeed, it is likely to quickly fade. It’s not easy to bend culture to your will. The only solution we see is to continue to experiment, and to allow the masses of consumers who now have control over media tools the power to manipulate and play with your idea. Like a virus mutating, eventually something will form that takes creation tension too far until society goes boom. All of which reminds us that we miss Batgirl.

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