This long and interesting post from the Neuroanthropology blog showed up on one of my friend’s shared RSS feeds recently. Essentially, the post eviscerates several talks on memes at the recent TED conference, demonstrating how inappropriate it is to ascribe evolutionary mechanisms to ideas (memes). Although we love us some Dennett around here, I must say Greg Downey’s criticism that there’s little empirical basis for using memes to explain human behavior and social development is hard to dispute.
Outside the world of academia, others are beginning to doubt the related “super-influencers” explanation of how trends spread and products become popular. In this model, super-influencers are more fit “hosts” that allow memes to propagate further and faster than than the same ideas would through “regular” people. It’s sort of a disease-vector model of marketing success and failure.
And this model has made sense from a marketing point of view for a while now as it seems to explain in part why some products and trends catch on while others don’t. But just as there’s little falsifiable evidence for memes, it would seem that there is equally little evidence to demonstrate the efficacy of marketing to super-influencers. Which is not to say that super-influencers and memes aren’t useful metaphors for how preferences and ideas spread – it’s just that we have to recognize the limits of these models. That’s kind of a shame: they were neat models.