Memes can explain why Instagram is worth a billion dollars

Next time you're looking to invest in an app, you'd do well to consult an evolutionary biologist...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
It turns out that famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins can tell us an awful lot about how to determine which consumer products will be successful in a post-PC world. That's pretty cool.

Back in December I took out a subscription to Audible — an Amazon-owned service where you can buy audiobooks. The first two books I bought — David Mitchell's autobiography, and one of the Stephen Fry autobiographies — I got through in about a week each. I then fancied taking my audiobook buying a little "higher brow" and bought Richard Dawkins's "The Selfish Gene."

Four months later, I'm still trying to get through it.

I should say, it's not that the book is hard to read. Rather, the internet (and in particular Twitter) has stripped away any ability that I had to concentrate on books for more than ten minutes. The Selfish Gene is accessible and interesting, but it is rather dense.

It's a book about genetics. It starts by talking about where genes comes from, and what it's for. It then goes into a ton of detail about how it works, why it is why it is, and so on. It is genuinely fascinating. It was published in 1976, and updated in 1989 and 2006. For completeness, the Audible version is the 1989 edition

One thing I didn't realise until I got to Chapter 14 was this — Dawkins was responsible for coining the term "meme." More to the point, I think Dawkins' memes can explain why Instagram is justifiably worth billions and billions of dollars.

All your base

When we think of "memes" we tend nowadays to think about what "screenagers" think of memes — things like cats that "had fun once that didn't like it," rage face, or the fact that all your base belong to us, etc.

If you're not a screenager, chances are you'd already heard of memes before they were co-opted by 4chan et al. (PSA: If you've never heard of 4chan and you're at work, watch out for NSFW content.) They're generally understood to be a kind of "base unit of cultural information" — something like a song, a piece of news, a technological concept.

Dawkins' develops the idea of the meme in a thought experiment. ("Meme" s a contraction of "mimeme", an ancient greek word for "imitated thing". You'll see the logic of that later. He shortened it because it was a) fussy and b) closer to "gene" when written as "meme".) DNA as it exists on earth is an expression of genetic code. Throughout The Selfish Gene, Dawkins goes to great lengths to explain that all animals and plants on earth are "survival machines" — specifically "devices" that have evolved to "cart around" genetic information from one generation to the next. DNA as we understand it today developed from things that Dawkins describes as "replicators". Replicators are protein chains that are able to create copies of themselves. The evolutionary process gets into the swing of things when replicators become more complex and become able to predate other replicators in response to food resources becoming scarce. The idea of survival machines comes from replicators both responding to a need to defend against predation and also to be more proactive in seeking food and other resources. Genes are replicators, and we are their survival machines "designed" to propagate the genes down to the next generation through procreation. We, as humans, are largely unimportant over the long term — all we're doing is just carrying genes around.

The thought experiment that Dawkins' puts is given the multitude of extrasolar planets in the universe, it's unlikely that we can always say that life on those planets looks like it does on earth. It could be silicon rather than carbon-based, for example. What he postulates is that though the underlying mechanics of the biology is likely to be different, there must be some commonality to all intelligent life in order for intelligence itself to actually work. He suggests that that commonality is culture. (By "culture" he's talking about anything that goes into the construction of society.) The meme is a baseline unit that behaves in a way similar to genes but is comprised solely of information. By making it out of information, it doesn't matter what the underlying structures are. 

One of the central ideas that Dawkins' drives home again and again in The Selfish Gene is the disinterested way in which the genetic evolutionary processes work. At its simplest the intention is that the whole shebang works simply by measuring how any two genes work in comparison to each other and see which one is the more likely to survive. For example, take a male bird that has a tail "designed" to attract a mate. One gene creates a short tail, another creates a long tail. (I'm very much oversimplifying this point, but I hope it will stand.) If within the population female birds are more likely to mate with a male bird with a long tail, the long tail gene will survive by virtue of the fact that long tail gene will be copied into any offspring that the pair have. Similarly, the because the male with the short tail gene is unlikely to mate, his particular gene will not be copied down to the next generation.

What tends to be lost in the understanding of memes — and I must have known about memes for 20 years and this was news to me before reading Dawkins' book — is that memes and genes follow the same process. You can put two memes into the "memepool" just like you can put two genes into the "genepool". Memes will be compared against each other and will survive or not depending on how good one is compared to the other. Similarly both genes and memes are both replicators. From a human society, their intention it to replicate themselves throughout society one uses in physiology for transmission, the other uses structures in the brain.

To drive this point home, I've presented at least two memes in this article — one example is that term meme was coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins; another is that the principles around memes are closely tied in with genetics and evolution. What I've done here is parasitised your brain. Those ideas are either new to you, or they've been reinforced. Either way your brain has been restructured as a result of absorbing information that I've presented. In this way, your body is survival machine to both basic genetics and "memetics" in terms of ideas and concepts that you need in order to be successful within society.

Back to computing

The question is — what's all that got to do with computing, and by extension, Instagram.

I'm about to talk about technology, but note that here I don't mean "high technology". You can draw a graph from "fire" and "wheel" through "four field crop rotation", through "penicillin", all the way up to "magnetic resonance imaging" — all of those are technologies. You can even do things like classing an "education system" with all the schools, teachers, curricula, budgets, etc as a single technology in its own right — that's just a technology that makes us better at making a technology.

One of the things that's been bothering me for — well, a couple of years — is why are we as a society so good at developing technology? From one perspective, it's almost like we're able to operate as a "gestalt entity" able to without direction "magic up" exactly the technologies that we need. Similarly, how were our bodies about to "magic up" eyes, and digestive systems, and immune systems. Simple — the physiological "technologies" (e.g. "eyes") are built up through an iterative and aggregative process of genetic evolution. Societal technologies (e.g. "fire") are built up through an interative and aggregative process of memetic evolution.

Dawkins' meme concept gives us a way of thinking about how those ideas parasitise themselves within the individual members of a society and then become successful in the memepool through successful propagation or not. The invention of "fire technology" made it easier to absorb nutrients and make food safer. Members of early society that were parasitised with the meme describing fire would have done better biologically-speaking than those who did not. (That was then and this is now -- now memes are typically not so life and death, rather there just about evolving cultures and society. Case in point: Gangnam Style is great fun, but it's generally won't have a measurable impact on your lifespan, or your ability to attract a mate. Well... I say that.)

The computing industry is all about very short term ideas, but they still have a root in memetics because by its very definition ideas have to based on memes. Ideas are placed into the memepool as memes. These memes then succeed or not dependent on how well they do against other competing memes. Because we are a capitalist society, what we're talking about here is attaching products to memes with the objectives of making a profit. The more successful the meme, the more successful the product, the greater the profit. 

An easy example here is photographs. If we're just talking post-PC, relationship-centric computing, photographs are very interesting because they are sociologically important. People like to maintain a record of their lives, and photography is very accessible and very sympathetic to that need.

Say it's snowing and you go outside with your kids and make a snowman. In a moment of inspiration you carve the snowman into a likeness of Darth Vader. It turns out you have a hitherto undiscovered talent for such things, and what you've created is so good, were George Lucas to walk past and see it, he would fall to his knees and weep with sweet, sweet joy.

You take a photo. You can now do one of the following, but only one. Which one?

a) You securely archive it. You don't look at it again for 30 years, until such time as your children have children and you can share with them the time that you made a snowman that looked like Darth Vadar. You do nothing else with it.

b) You post it on Facebook.

The reason why I've chosen these two is that they describe two ways in which photos have worked in our society over the past several decades. Specifically, it shows how a new meme into the memepool is dominating over an old meme. I'll formalise the memes in a moment.

When I was a kid in the 1980s, I would visit my grandmother and she would show me photos of her life as young woman. She would rarely look at the photos herself without me there. What she's essentially done is taken the photo, put it in long-term storage, and shared it with a later generation. She has in the meantime, shared it with no one. This describes option "a" above. Option "b" option describes how most popular systems related to photography actually work in our current timeframe. Most popular systems (Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, etc) involve immediate sharing of images.

Today, from a sociological perspective we have the technology to share images captured from our unique life experiences but the meme "I must share this with people I love today!" (i.e. option "b") does better in the memepool than the meme "I must share this with people that I will love tomorrow!" (i.e. option "a"). The hypothesis here is that products based on option "b" (i.e. immediate sharing) will be more commercially successful than products based on option "a" (i.e. archiving). We haven't had to do any weird reasoning here, and we don't need to start from a hypothesis as we can measure in the market that sharing systems are more commercially successful than archiving systems. We can take a baseline rule of genetics — i.e. that genes succeed in the genepool if they can be more successful than any other gene — and take that straight down to memetics. Because we're talking about commercial imperatives, we then go in a chain like "meme --> product --> customer". The customer hooks into the product, the product hooks into the meme. To reach the most customers, hook into the meme that's most successful in the memepool.


These ideas summarise some of the underlying issues that people trying to turn a profit in the computer industry face. It's no longer a matter of being a good enough salesperson to convince a CTO to buy a big ticket system that's imposed on a bunch of users, if you want to play in the post-PC space it's all sociology, psychology, social anthropology, and related social science. How society works is driven by memetics — ideas come up, and they either live or die as they propagate themselves by parasitising from mind-to-mind, just like genetic variations come up from generation-to-generation.

Imagine it's three years ago and someone comes to you with an app that lets you take a photo, ruin it by applying a filter that makes it look thirty years old, and then share it with your friends. Someone else comes to you with an app that lets you take a photo, but guarantees that photo will still be available in a hundred years time. Which one would you have invested in?

I would have hands down without question poured money into the latter — the digital archive one is the one that makes the most sense as a product, especially if you come at it with an enterprise mindset. If you don't know what it is, and it's 2010 not 2013, Instagram just sounds like a stupid idea. But that thought process starts in the middle of a "meme -> product -> customer" chain. If you consider both proposals with the *meme* first, are you likely to make a better choice? I think so. 

Instragram worked because it was delightfully in-tune with the memes that were already sitting out there in society's memepool. Sharing photos provided a large, immediate, emotional hit. Its for this reason alone that Instagram is worth billions and billions of dollars, whereas a system for archiving personal photos for a hundred years might do OK, but it won't do stellar numbers. Much as it pains me to say it, memetically and sociologically speaking, Instagram deserves is massive success.

Regardless, would you have made the same mistake and like me (hypothetically) invested in the archiving system?

Final thought: now that I've parasitised your brain, would you still?

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

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