At their core, public blockchains are decentralized socio-economic networks that allow users to coordinate in a peer to peer manner. Users are generally drawn to the network because they share some common characteristics and agree on a set of fundamental values — what has been dubbed, ‘social scalability’ or ‘social consensus.’
Decentralized networks are similar to memes in that they represent units of cultural information that are passed from one individual to another. Memes themselves are very similar to genes in that they’re replicators who evolve over time as they compete for survival.
While this is an abstract comparison, a few social scientists set out to formally study how memes penetrate and grow within cultures. Their research soon turned into Memetics, the empirical study of how culture and ideas evolve.
Memetics attempts to empirically evaluate memes relative to a standard fitness framework to determine which ones have the potential to grow the most and survive the longest. The stronger the meme — meaning the more it is able to spread and survive — the more valuable it becomes #lindy.
In the absence of more formal and agreed upon valuation models,—albeit there are many high-quality ones being researched—it’s interesting to frame the memes around different blockchain networks and analyze them through the lenses put forward in Memetics. We can use these frameworks to model new ways of unearthing qualitative features that are fundamental to a decentralized network’s growth.
In this two-part essay, I’ll explore the idea of memes through a more granular lense and analyze the importance of memes in blockchain culture. I’ll then propose some ideas on how we can better measure a meme’s effectiveness and what that means for the potential future growth of a decentralized network.
To start our exploration, we must first understand exactly what a meme is.
What is a Meme?
It’s easy to first dismiss memes as just being snarky internet pictures that spread on social networks. In reality, they’re much more than that. A more formal definition regards memes as units of cultural information that spread between people. Think ideas, behaviors, or styles.
Memes can also be thought of as stories that help humans coordinate around shared goals. Humans attach value to them because they emerge as answers to some of our most pressing questions. Generally speaking, the more a meme spreads, the more ingrained in culture it becomes. Almost every societal institution is a meme. Religion, money, language, corporations, fashion, habits, and music are all examples of shared systems that only came about because a large majority of people placed faith in them. Think of the allegiance we have towards Apple, or even more pertinent, the way the Ethereum community interprets what Vitalik says.
Memes naturally spread because people are wired to imitate each other in an effort to discover the most optimal ways to accomplish specific goals. The most effective memes are those that best compress necessary information. Take for example web development, how much of the web is built on Bootstrap? Anyone is able to copy Twitter’s initial code and build arbitrarily complex sites on top. Similarly, what percentage of web applications are built with React?
Behaviorally, memes closely resemble biological replicators like genes or viruses in that they’re transmitted between individuals and can only survive if they find new hosts. Essentially, they compete with one another for humanity’s attention and memory. The more often a meme is shared (replicated) and ingrained into our thoughts, the stronger it becomes. Think of the this as survival of the fittest, but for ideas and beliefs.
The term ‘meme’ was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins used the word to describe an idea or behavioral pattern that spread amongst people. He noted that these ideas looked and felt a lot like viruses in that they infect hosts and are rapidly imitated. Dawkins was specifically examining why some cultural ideas persist even though they do nothing to help us survive (evolve). Dawkins concluded that the ideas themselves must be battling for survival (are evolving).
In her work, The Power of Memes, Susan Blackmore asserts that memes are a form of information the same way genes are. Genes are a form of information written in DNA that our bodies interpret as specific instructions on how to stay alive. As life goes on, these instructions change based on whatever will allow them to be passed down to the next person. Similarly, memes are specific instructions on how we interpret our beliefs and form cultures. As our external environments change, the memes themselves will change to whatever best helps them spread.
Memes became particularly popular on the internet as a byproduct of how easy it was to create and disseminate information. In fact, memes were instrumental in spawning a massive number of internet-native communities — crypto being one of the largest. Memes underpin these groups’ main communication channels. They’re the easiest way for thousands of people who solely coordinate online to share information. Their influence is clear when looking at the way these communities develop unique cultures with rich sets of norms, traditions, and even languages. The terms ‘HODL’ and ‘BUIDL’ encapsulate that phenomenon perfectly.
It was extremely fascinating to hear Stewart Brand retell his stories from previous technological booms at devcon4. One thoughtful point he made was industries that spawned new vocabularies usually meant something big was happening. He described how it’s akin to a new community forming around a shared set of beliefs, or more formally, the formation of a powerful meme. Again, we can see this happening in crypto as we’ve created a whole new vocabulary set. ‘Fork,’ ‘Beacon Chain,’ and ‘#DeFi’ are all just methods by which the community develops a shared understanding for new ideas.
Memes, but on the Blockchain
Memes have always been an integral part of blockchain culture because they capture dense concepts and digest them into ideas that can be easily shared and recognized. This is particularly valuable in nascent and internet-native industries like crypto. It’s much easier for new users to grasp the concept of ‘digital gold’ rather than teaching them all of the technical details behind Bitcoin’s capped supply and the underlying game theoretics that ensure it won’t be inflated.
Nick Tomaino makes a good point in that much of what investors purchase when they buy crypto-assets is memes. If you look at the top 10 crypto-assets, almost all of them have some variation of a meme attached to them.
The same idea is captured wonderfully in Jameson Lopp’s ‘NarrativeMarket Cap’ meme about the memes attached to different blockchains.
The reason for this is that memes distill the value proposition of a decentralized network down to a form that can be easily shared and understood amongst network stakeholders, and in a time where attention is scarce and participants are able to toggle between communities with a few clicks, developing a sticky brand is paramount to building a network effect.As a heuristic, the easier it is for users to disseminate a network’s value proposition, the higher the likelihood it can grow.
Coming back to the Digital Gold or Sound Money meme. Referring to Bitcoin as ‘digital gold’ helps newcomers understand some of its core features and better sets the stage for the argument that it’s a step function improvement relative to physical gold. Similarly, this comparison conjures up the traits that make gold a good form of money including durability, portability, fungibility, verifiability, divisibility, and scarcity.
For the longest time, the explanation that best explained Ether to newcomers was Digital Oil powering decentralized applications. It was much easier to convey the value that Ether played in the decentralized economy by comparing it to a resource that everyone commonly ascribed value to. Without diving deeper into what makes memes stronger, we can already see that a potential feature of a good meme is having well known, real-world analogs.
Memes around decentralized networks also change in response to dominant market narratives. Often times, participants shape their beliefs in a way that is most beneficial to the network’s growth. This is a result of the fact that memes need to adapt if they are to survive. Just take a look at the way the Ethereum community is attempting to represent Ether as a form of commodity or programmable money powering a parallel financial system.The argument goes that Ether can develop traits found in the Sound Money narrative through its use as a form of collateral in financial contracts.
Both Bitcoin and Ethereum have undergone multiple shifts in their interpretation. In fact, Bitcoin has already moved through seven distinct narratives including cheap p2p payments network and uncorrelated financial asset. Similarly, in its short lifetime, Ethereum has been interpreted as a number of different systems including Bitcoin 2.0, a decentralized world computer, and a platform for open finance applications.
Similar to how memes can be used to illustrate the beneficial properties of a blockchain, they can also be used to convey the values shared by those who believe in a specific meme. Two examples the crypto community knows all to well are ‘HODL’ and ‘BUIDL.’ The former — an homage to a prolific Bitcointalk thread — exemplifies the Bitcoin community’s steadfast commitment to the currency regardless of market conditions. Many in the community have also made the argument that simply holding Bitcoin is akin to utilizing the network for its most valuable features. ‘BUIDL’ on the other hand, emerged as the Ethereum community reflected on the asset’s astronomical price rise relative to any tangible value — or lack thereof — that the platform created. The meme signifies the community’s belief that building usable products is a far more important success metric than price appreciation.
At the most extreme end of the spectrum, internet memes themselves can become blockchain networks. Take for example Dogecoin, a digital currency that’s solely based off of the ‘Doge’ meme. What’s interesting is that it’s grown to a market cap of $250 million USD ($2 billion USD all-time high) without any redeeming technical qualities. Genuinely, there is nothing special about Dogecoin, except maybe becoming a tip-bot on Reddit (this would be cool), it’s merely a copy of Bitcoin with a few technical tweaks and a Shiba Inu logo. Even the creator of Dogecoin, Jackson Palmer, doesn’t believe the currency is valuable.
How can a currency that’s been denounced by its own creator hold any value at all? Simple, it holds memetic value.
It’s also interesting to note how a meme might affect the way a host views competing memes. Given that memes are always competing for survival, hosts’ can be particularly unkind to outside ideas. We can see this in the sometimes intense tribalism that occupies different crypto communities. The fact that the incentives are monetary in nature only exacerbates this effect.
So if memes are like genes in that they’re easily copied and passed on from generation to generation, they must go through a process similar to evolution. Understanding evolution through Darwinian Theory was one of the most illuminating findings in the history of mankind. What if there are hidden truths that accurately explain how and why cultures form? What could be accomplished if we were to understand our belief systems at a much more granular level?
If you have any ideas or want to chat about the content of this essay, please feel free to reach out to me on twitter!
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