The most elegant computer "virus" and the meme

The science of viral ideas

Back in the early years of the internet age – when the web was wide-spread but before efficient spam filters – I used to get lots of emails from friends urging me to send them on to other contacts. My friends were of course not the original source of these mails; they were just happily sending them on. Either because there was this 'brilliant' power point joke that I just had to see, or because the email said that they would meet the love of their life it they did. They soon thought me boring.

I never opened power point slides, and rarely sent stuff on. Worse, I lectured them about the immorality of sending stuff on. Discouraging email forwarding of crap while still keeping from insulting friends thinking they did me a favour proved hard. Saying that I saw these emails as examples of the most ingenious computer viruses to that date was not helping. People did not see it that way.

The majority of the email-authors did not think like that either. It was probably just a coincidence: some funny office joke caught on and spread through the net. The 'please send this email to as many as you can within X days' were a more elaborate construction but probably just so by intuition.

The author wanted to know if it would catch on, and had a feeling for how it would spread as electronic mail. But it was not written and seen as a virus. Let me explain why I thought them a) computer virus, and b) ingenious. First, a computer virus is a piece of code with the purpose of copying itself onto computer systems. No one wants an infected computer so the virus targets vulnerabilities to find a back door into our systems. To write a good computer virus require skill and knowledge. Detecting and stopping virus from propagating is a huge deal today.

Every month new holes in our systems are patched. There are ani-virus software that check your email attachments, warning you to activate them. This brings us to the ingenious part. Those small emails that you sent to 10 of your friends? They were propagating just like a virus.

There was no need to sneak in through operating system back doors or latching on to any attached Word document. Emails are legit. You may object, arguing that the computer virus will go undetected through the system, all automatic. It require skill to write, and is therefore much more elegant. Technically elegant, yes. But, I ask you: does it not dwindle compared to the simplicity of a short text, merely asking to be sent on? I find that simply brilliant. The 'program' is not run on the computer system, it executes in your mind.

Well, if you even consider it a program. Not much more than a few 'instructions'. You do the work, not the computer. There is no need to find any technical vulnerability. No need to write software. Ingenious. What we today call social engineering when it is applied intentionally. Most of the early ones however were probably not constructed, they just happened. Back then I did not express it that way, I just recognized the phenomenon as behaving like a computer virus; all the while thinking it ironic that they were so simple compared to the coded equivalent. Others saw it more clearly and named the phenomenon when it spread to web pages, pictures, and online videos.

It became known as an (internet) meme. The word meme has (as far as I know) its origin in Richard Dawkins groundbreaking 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins coined the term to denote a unit of cultural information that would spread and evolve through communication. An analogue to how genes spread biological information. Accidentally, the word meme as used in daily language is somewhat different from the formal meaning, but it doesn't really matter for this discussion.

Much has been thought and said about memes since then, and much experimentation. Today's ad agencies have started to talk about 'viral marketing'. Ad campaigns that spread themselves. A few skilled people have identified what it takes to make these phenomena. To build them so that they trigger the right switches, and thus considered cool and worthy to send on.

At the same time our communication online has evolved to facilitate the spread of memes. The annoying emails promising love and happiness if forwarded have long mutated and moved to Facebook (fortunately). One of twitter's core features is to retweet, immediately send someone else's message to all your own followers; making forwarding a one-click business. Almost no thought is needed.

Returning now to the computer virus analogy, there is one important area where the original, as well as today's, constructed internet meme differs. While both the computer virus and the internet meme's most basic principle is to spread, we attributes malicious actions to the virus as well. Stealing identities, spamming, joining our computers to zombie networks, and so on. Constructed memes do not do all of that. Yet.

Still, many would argue that already today many memes exist making you give up both identity and savings. To join foolish crusades, or invest in doomed projects. I would like to point out here the difference between a constructed meme and what I like to call an evolved meme: it comes down to original purpose. The original purpose of the early internet memes described above is to spread, that is why I label them as constructed.

The evolved meme on the other hand spread but was created for another purpose originally. As an example consider a philosophy, a cultural phenomenon, a religion or a political idea. These are created to entertain, to explain, or to influence. Traditionally knowledge and culture were built out of a need to explain or communicate the world. Such memes may be very complex, containing instructions on how to live a good life, or how to perform a certain task. Closely related to the original meme definition and primarily being a set of messages.

While the medium may very well be the message the spread happens because parts of the ideas attracts a person such that he feels it is a good idea to tell his friends. Thus, they were constructed to contain the message and have, because of some need in society, started spreading afterwards.

They have attained the function to replicate and therefore found a vessel for the message. This distinction is important, because the constructed memes we saw up until recently were primarily vessels with a very limited message. Built to spread, telling whatever story needed to do so. Be it lost love or pictures of kittens and otters.

But spreading is the basic feature; we know evolved memes have the power to change our values, behaviors, and society, so there may be ways for constructed ones to carry out the same tasks.

In the future we may look back on the ad agencies of the twentieth and early twenty-first century with the same mixed feelings we today have for the alchemists of the dark ages. Fumbling in the dark, looking for something that doesn't exist.

But from their misguided trials, other women and men, more trained in rational thinking, created the first glimmer of chemistry.