The Age of the Selfish Meme

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The times, they are a-changin’.

The image above (via Reddit) comes from an Australian store that has started charging $5 to customers who peruse the goods but don’t buy anything, assuming they are just looking around to buy elsewhere later (possibly online), a strategy known as showrooming.

That’s a difficult problem to face if you’re a brick and mortar store: Best Buy has famously solved it by price-matching any online deal on its merchandise. This store chose a very different approach, one that is sure to alienate many potential customers. We are going through a big transition phase in how we deal with technology. Online shopping is already a taken-for-granted habit for many, but other changes are more subtle and take the stage less ceremoniously. Think of voicemail, which almost no one uses anymore. If you leave someone a voicemail and believe they will listen to it, you’re talking a dead language. But nobody tells you: you just have to know. That’s maybe why Nick Bilton of the New York Times caused a stir when he blogged about current trends in digital etiquette, saying that people who reply to an email or a text just to say “thank you” are rude.

It’s a generational clash all right, with grownups blaming the kids for being unpolite, but it’s way more than that. It’s not the first time we go through these hurdles, only the tools are different. One of «the first crises of techno-etiquette», as the Times calls it, happened just after the telephone was invented: nobody knew what to say when they picked up a call. Ahoy! and What is wanted? were popular options before we eventually settled on Hello. That was a single problem related to a single piece of technology. Think of how many of these processes we are going through today. The difference is that there’s no concerted effort, because most of these problems have not been around long enough to create a definite distinction between right and wrong. So everyone gives it a shot and hopes for the best.

In evolutionary terms, when someone smarter that you is around, you’re in trouble. Even if you’re standing on a freshly killed gazelle, there’s always a sneaky scavenger lurking somewhere. People being born today are delivered to a full-digital world, and this creates a fracture as large as we’ve ever seen. Some folks, the older generations, will fade away before this becomes more than a nuisance for them, but others who are still relatively young are at risk of suffering.

Technology is mature enough for some companies to have become dinosaurs. Think of the difference between Microsoft and Google. They were founded just 23 years apart, but if feels like a century. Yahoo, another flailing tech company, just made headlines around the world for having bought Summly, a news reading app that sums up news stories through an algorythm, for $30 million. The app was made by a 17-year old who is being hired by Yahoo. There’s no media outlet in the world that hasn’t picked up the story, because a kid who makes millions with an app has just slightly less appeal than a litter of puppies: it’s irresistible. But Summly had been around for a year, very few people used it, and Yahoo has already killed it. Yet this has become the global talk of the day and it’s given the company a fresh coat of paint, not a bad deal for $30 million, or 0,75 percent of Yahoo’s cash reserves. There’s no right or wrong in this: you can either see it as a brilliantly cynical PR move or a genuine sign that there’s hope for humanity. Either way, I’m not sure this trick can be successfully pulled off for much longer.

The following image is floating around Facebook: 536319_321387391297312_836869227_n It’s a static image that appears to be moving because it tricks your brain a little bit. The image is shared with the encouragement to “type 1 in the comments to see the magic”. Of course all the “magic” is already there, and absolutely nothing happens if you type “1” in the comments. You should know that. And yet this has racked up over 200,000 comments, with most people sheepishly complying and inflating the comment counter (an empty endeavor at that, but that’s how the Internet works). Imagine if someone told you in the street to shout out «one» very loud to “see the magic”. You’d think they’re nuts. You would certainly not comply. But in technology, the weakest of nudges will make you do things without thinking.

Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist who coined the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, saw it coming: just like genes use biological beings to propagate themselves, we are now slaves to memes as well. Most people don’t take these things seriously: they are not afraid to act like digital idiots. They still see this realm as something separate from reality, where the effort required to do stuff is minimal (one click) and so is the social cost of errors and mishaps. There’s an obvious detachment: people still use nicknames even where they’re not supposed to. There are companies that block off Facebook and other sites so that their employees do not slack off at work. In a few years (wether Facebook will still be around or not) that will be considered as outrageous as asking people to relinquish their phones before they sit at their desks.

For some, technology is not yet life, it’s something that still sits on top of it, separated. But it’s not. We are constantly going through sweeping social change, but it’s less apparent when you’re standing in the middle of it. And as with every social change, some people are on the forefront of it, some are puzzled by it, and some can’t even see it fly over their heads. It’s a very interesting time, but because transitions have uncertain boundaries it will be probably forgotten by history. Just like those times when we still hadn’t figured out what to say when we answered the phone.

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