If you could, what idea would you implant into the minds of your audience?
Innovations and new ideas compete for dominance in markets and social media, just as organisms compete for survival in wild nature. The fittest competitors survive not as a matter of moral superiority but as a matter of adapting to a changing environmental context. This evolution need not be accidental but one of conscious design. You've got an idea. How do you make it infectious?
Years ago, long before we were all hijacked by the teeny coronavirus, I had the opportunity to play golf at Pebble Beach. This is a bucket list trip for many golfers as it was for me. I'd been warned about how tough the course was and I wanted to make the best of the experience, so I hired a caddy. I'd never had a caddie before and didn't know what to expect. "Johnny Mac" asked me what I was hoping to get out of my round that day. "I just want to survive those infamous greens" to which he replied, "one team, one dream"–clearly one of his favorite catch phrases.
Memes are ideas that spread through a community like a virus.
The idea of a meme comes from the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. He coined the term to denote the cultural analog of the gene. A meme is any idea that travels from one person to the next to the next, passing on the information it contains to the receiving host. Johnny was not the first person to use his meme and nor will I. It's catchy, like a movie line or song lyric and that's one of the reasons it so easily infects people and moves on.
You cannot resist an idea whose time has come.
In the last few months, most of us have learned far more than we ever wanted to learn about viruses. Viruses spread exponentially according to what's called R0 (R naught) values: the number of people a host will infect with the virus. The higher the number, the higher the transmission rate. People have a very difficult time thinking exponentially, so public health officials needed a way to help people understand both the threat and the response. The phrase "flatten the curve" is a meme containing the germ of an idea that led to social distancing and shuttering non-essential services. No one needed to be an immunologist to get the idea. The idea virus spread much quicker than the biological one it was targeting. In evolutionary terms, the phrase "fit" the global context as billions of people adopted it and passed it on.
Successful memes bypass the need for critical thinking.
A meme works precisely because it makes sense. People see or hear the meme and their collective response is, "of course!" Critical thinking would only slow down the transmission rate. Richard Brodie, who wrote the original version of Microsoft Word went on to write a book called, Virus of the Mind. People are susceptible to absorbing idea viruses. There is no requirement for an idea virus to be true for it to spread. This is obvious in all the fake news we are bombarded with on a daily basis.
Successful memes are short, catchy and emotionally charged.
Idea viruses dock in receptor sites much in the way biological ones do. The docking works by taking and idea that the target audience already understands, like "curve" and tilting it with a twist like, "flatten". This metaphor easily conveys the much more complicated idea of a logistics curve (an exponential growth curve evolving into an exponential decline curve through active resistance). One of Set Godin's first books was, The Idea Virus, and he summarizes viral mechanics on his blog.
The Last Dance documents the spectacular rise of Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls 1990's basketball dynasty. If you do watch it, you'll come to understand the complex competitive strategy and brute animal drive to win at all costs of "the three peat repeat". This meme spread through Chicago in 1998, sponsored in part by the company that brought you one of the greatest memes of the 20th century, Just Do It.