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Hacking Memes

by

Stephen Downes

This article is from
www.firstmonday.dk

Contents

The Essence of the Meme
Advertising
The Corporate Pitch
Hyper Reality
The Information War
Control of the Classrooms
The Counteroffensive: Words as Weapons
Humble Beginnings
Electronic Warfarer
The Network
Web Ad Jamming and Spoof Sites
The Anti-Meme

The Essence of the Meme

The concept of the meme has been working its way around the Web for a while now, instantiating itself in Wired's regular feature, Hype List, in articles, and in general currency.

As David Bennahum writes at the top of each issue of Meme, a meme is a

"contagious idea that replicates like a virus, passed on from mind to mind. Memes function the same way genes and viruses do, propagating through communication networks and face-to-face contact between people."

The tune you can't get out of your head, the phrase you keep using in your conversation - these are all memes, ideas which have passed from somewhere out there into your head and into your consciousness.

Transference is the essence of the meme. Principia Cybernetica Web defines it as "an information pattern, held in an individual's memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual's memory." The Hacker's Dictionary defines it as "An idea considered as a replicator, esp. with the connotation that memes parasitize people into propagating them much as viruses do."

The concept originates in Richard Dawkins's 1976 book The Selfish Gene. The word 'meme' sounds like 'gene' and has similar properties. Humans, from the point of view of either gene or meme, are the means by which genes - or memes - are propagated. Animals, plants, and even ourselves, are merely their disposable "survival machines".

Our human capacity to communicate consists in our ability to transfer ideas from one person to another. Such transference is perfect. Message sometimes are changed as they are whispered ear to ear. But it is reliable. Most of the time, the receiver gets the information the sender wanted to convey.

Different forms of communication operate more or less effectively. A casual conversation you have on a bus will be forgotten by day's end, while this essay may linger in your mind a few days longer. Neither conversation nor essay, however, has the staying power of the McDonald's jingle. Mere transference is not sufficient. For an idea to take hold in another person, it must be internalized, it must be what Dreyfus and Dreyfus call the expert, or intuitive, state of knowledge.

From the standpoint of humans, ideas are the currency of the information economy. An idea which replicates well is worth money, because the idea that implants itself of intuitive knowledge acts as a determinate of behaviour. The best way to get a person to buy your product or to use your service is to internalize it, to make it an automatic action. In advertising it's an old rule of thumb: mention the product name three times in a 15 second spot.

As Andrew Garton laments,

The record industry maintains its status in the global economy and its income streams by way of repetition. Music that is played over and over again so much that it creates its own audience that in turn purchase its representation to listen to it over and over again in their homes, their cars, walkmans, bathrooms... anywhere one can think to place a speaker.

Ideas - and not just advertising - transmit themselves through repetition.

Advertising

Repetition alone worked in the old days of limited media. When the sources of information were few and uniform, when there were three networks and one message. Today's consumers are not only more sophisticated - merely making them remember is no longer enough - consumers are the battleground for information wars, with messages flying at them from all directions. Drive down any city street and look at the images: one in ten (if you're lucky) is an actual traffic signal; the rest are trying to implant some idea, some behaviour, into your mind.

Advertising today looks for stronger hooks, and it finds them in association and self-identification. The concept is especially simple: find (or define) a person's conception of self which is pleasing. Mold that conception such that the use of a product or service is essential to that conception. Imprint the idea that in order to be yourself, you need to purchase such-and-such a brand.

Nike, for example, understands this. After losing market share to Reebok, Nike's new advertising campaign focussed less and less on shoes and more and more on image. As Randall Lane explains,

Nike's Phil Knight isn't selling shoes. He's selling attitude...

Nike would sell not shoes but the athletic ideals of determination, individuality, self-sacrifice and winning... .

Nike ads almost never pitch product - or even mention the company's name. They create a mood, an attitude, and then associate the product with that mood. Call it image transfer. Cool ads, cool product. As Wieden puts it: "We don't set out to make ads. The ultimate goal is to make a connection."

The idea behind Nike's ads is to transfer a sense of identity from the person to the product.

The Corporate Pitch

People living in western democracies are flooded with advertising. The illusion is sustained that they are being offered choice, but in reality, they are being presented with a uniform message. Western society does not consist of many cultures, rather, more and more, they are being subsumed into a single culture.

The reality of this hit home for me when I found myself listening to - and enjoying - Meredith Brooks's recent hit song, Bitch. I realized that the song was an advertisement for a movie, Practical Magic. Brooks's song - fresh, rebellious, catchy - was appropriated and incorporated into the larger media package. Indeed, it seems that most popular music today ties in with movies or television - and that most movies and television programs are linked to additional product lines.

These tie-ins define not only the breadth but also the limits of popular culture. Even rebellion is commodified - if it is not commodified, it is not shown. 'Culture' in our society, both from the popular point of view and even in academic studies - means 'mass culture', as defined by the tightly woven network of the mass media meme. As author and pundit Carrie McLaren complains

The real disappointment lies in (scholars') abject inability to recognize 'popular culture' anywhere but in the officially-sanctioned showplaces of corporate America; their utter dependence on television to provide them with an imagery of rebellion.

Or as Mark Dery observes in his classic essay, Culture Jamming,

Corporate ownership of the news media, the subsumption of an ever-larger number of publishing companies and television networks into an ever-smaller number of multinationals, and the increased privatization of truth by an information-rich, technocratic elite are not newly-risen issues. More recent is the notion that the public mind is being colonized by corporate phantasms - wraith-like images of power and desire that haunt our dreams.

Hyper Reality

"The French philosopher Baudrillard calls our postmodern existence "hyperreality." Real experiences and things have been replaced with simulacra - copies without an original. Due to the power of mass media advertising, our relationship to the signifier has changed. Now it hides the absence of a signified: conceals the inability to deliver real satisfaction by cleverly simulating it. Part of our hyperreal lives is the fact that our simulations are more real than real. Given a better imitation, people choose it over the real thing; hence Disney's Matterhorn enjoys more visitors than the real one in Switzerland. More insidiously, through various obfuscations, people come to think the simulacrum is the real McCoy, and forget about the historical and physical reality it represents."
Steve Mizrach

Modern advertising critics like Mark Crispin Miller often note the hidden messages concealed within the cool graphics and media saturation of Madison Avenue and MTV. Originally, they suggest, advertising often connected the product being sold with some sort of self-image or way of life (pastoral, pleasant, family-oriented.) Often, it was conveyed that the product would somehow confer various advantages - popularity, sexiness, fame, success, power, even individuality. Today, ads are filled with a strange sort of rugged selfishness, misanthropy, and mean-spiritedness ("touch my doritos and die.") A person is told sternly to buy as much as they can of the product but never to share with friends. "Get your own," they're told. While various moral crusaders seek to combat the various sexual innuendos of television programming, they rarely challenge the more subtle but socially disruptive images found in commercials and other advertising.

The product, no longer able to offer satisfaction on its own ground ("a potato chip is a chip is a chip"), instead offers the consumer a chance to be part of a certain 'crowd' or 'scene.' They belong to a cool "product tribe," revelling in the image and sensibility that the product somehow mystically confers - the fetishism of commodities, hyperaccelerated for Generation X. Analysts of postindustrial America suggest this is the secret hidden within these advertising campaigns - that more and more people are being sold style, image, and celebrity, since there is no substance or material satisfaction to the product-in-itself. Concealed within the jump-cut flash of postmodern advertising is a simple code: consumption is a mode of transcendence, a way to take part in something larger than yourself, "the Pepsi Generation."

Corporations utilize various techniques to carve Americans into various market profiles - not based on what products they use, but on what media messages they respond to. In other words, they are to be sold on the images they want to project to themselves and others, and not on the intrinsic usefulness of consumer items. Whatever values they supposedly respond to, are translated into clever pitches, suggesting that the product somehow represents or embodies those values. Subliminal seduction has never been that important in advertising, despite the hype, but the use of semiotic strategies certainly has. Products are often "pitched" to specific ethnic groups, minorities, or sub-cultures, often using the Marcusian strategy of appealing to their own sense of difference or deviance ("Wear our clothes, and then you'll be a real rebel.").

The Information War

"Didn't you hear? They've declared information war against everybody. Yep, that's right, the digital economy is really the perpetual war economy. Like Genesis the Great Flood is on, only we're the ones being flooded, or rather bombarded by information, seeking our conversion to the holy faith of consumerism, otherwise known as virtual reality.

And of course in declaring war the state has identified its enemies and scapegoats: hackers, phreakers, and anarchists, all of whom are presumed terrorists."
Jesse Hirsh

We tend to think of the media message as pertaining to products and services only, and to restrict our concept of the tie-ins to toys, clothing, and running shoes. But the uniform image being broadcast extends well beyond consumer purchases; it is devoted to creating and maintaining the consumer society. No element of life is sacrosanct; all elements of society are infused.

On the one hand, non-corporate forms of information - any information - are attacked. In some cases, the strategy is straight-forwardly political. Herbert Schiller, as quoted by Dery:

"The commercialization of information, its private acquisition and sale, has become a major industry. While more material than ever before, in formats created for special use, is available at a price, free public information supported by general taxation is attacked by the private sector as an unacceptable form of subsidy... . An individual's ability to know the actual circumstances of national and international existence has progressively diminished."

In Canada and other nations, we see this as the incessant attacks on public broadcasting networks such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

On another front, it involves attacking the integrity and credibility of alternative news sources. A recent National Post article on the CBC's coverage of biotechnology is typical. Terence Corcoran writes scathingly,

"Ideology certainly dominated CBC Radio's This Morning show yesterday. Reporter Don Carty is a smooth-talking manipulator of words who gives his slanted reports a thin veneer of objectivity."

The corporate culture strives for the middle ground, to portray themselves as objective and neutral; any position from outside that camp is ridiculed as "biased" and "political".

Alternatively, public media can be co-opted. Hence, for example, the sale of the educational Access Network by the government of Alberta to the CHUM Media Group. Or the infiltration of the American Public Broadcasting System by corporate interests, with - as Carrie McLaren observes, inevitable results:

"In the wake of the Disney/ABC merger, a Young and Rubicam [huge advertising firm] survey of 8,500 brands worldwide concluded that the most eligible brand for acquisition is the Public Broadcasting Service. Surprise, the home of "educational" programming like Barney and Nova is one big non-commercial commercial. Says PBS spokesperson Stu Kantor, "In terms of differentiation and personal relevance, it is the No. 2 (behind Disney) media brand among the total population."

The mainstream media's fostering of a sanitary corporate image extends well beyond news and advertising. Situation comedies, dramas and movies - the mainstream of 'popular culture' - are plagued with product placement and are passed through the image scrubber before they air. NBC's handling of Atomic Train is typical of the many instances reported by the Student Activists' Network Wayne Grytting,

"After heavily promoting the movie's factual basis, NBC suddenly changed its mind with "no input" from its parent company, GE, a big investor in nuclear power. Alerted to the "fact" that nuclear wastes are not transported by trains, they added a disclaimer emphasizing the movie's fictional character which they showed at every commercial break. Then they overdubbed every mention of nuclear waste with the phrase "hazardous waste", thereby achieving the look of a dubbed Japanese horror film."

The image of the world that we receive through popular culture - whether in music, in the cinema, or on television - is a carefully polished version of reality.

As the band Negativeland writes,

"It is simply inconceivable that this daily, never ending stream of public suggestion and desire creation has no effect or influence on our spirits, our health, our jobs, our laws, our environment, our culture, our political process, or our national and international policy."

Control of the Classrooms

The battle extends to all corners of the information nation, even into the sanctity of the kindergarten classroom. Knowing that repetition and imprinting are key, advertisers are keen to infuse their message into the curriculum. Advertisers, for example, recently placed their product in mathematics textbooks.

"This looks like product placement, as they do in the movies," said David Walsh, director of the National Institute on Media and the Family, based in Minneapolis, which studies the effect of advertising on families. "The effect is the same. It gets at what I call the golden rule of influence, which is when the person being influenced doesn't even know it."

Media groups such as Channel One place television news shows into classrooms. As they say on their Web site,

"Channel One News is a daily, televised, 10-minute newscast that is beamed via satellite during the school year to each of the 12,000 schools in the Channel One Network community. Channel One News features stories on breaking news and in-depth issues that affect the world, the nation and specifically America's teenagers."

Leaving aside the question of advertising in education, an examination of what Channel One considers "news" is revealing. The May 27, 1999 edition asked students how they liked Star Wars, covered Alannis Morisette, commented on body image, and reported "Live from Mt. Everest".

The message broadcast to students on Channel One is clear: our culture is defined by the movies and music we see and hear, our culture is the best, and the best path to self-actualization is to immerse ourselves in this culture.

Listen to Channel One on freedom in China:

"Behind the Chinese government's restrictions are cultural and historical factors. For thousands of years, Chinese culture has been based on Confucian values, which people have a respect for authority. The ruler of the people is a father figure whom everyone must obey. The Chinese government's existing authoritarian style of leadership follows the ancient way of emperors who ruled China with "the mandate of Heaven." Individualism is not highly valued in Confucianism. Instead, people are encouraged to act in the best interest of the family and community."

The Chinese culture, according to Channel One, is inherently and irredeemable evil, based on authoritarian "Confucian" values. Such an account misrepresents both Chinese culture and Confucianism. By contrast, the American culture is painted in pure tones,

"America was founded by English colonists who wanted independence from Great Britain. The United States also has become a haven for immigrants fleeing religious and ethnic persecution in other countries. Because of these historical events, individualism and freedom is highly valued in American culture."

In this conflation of "freedom" and "individualism," freedom in the United States is traced to political and religious roots.

Advertisers have long known that imprinting is best accomplished though marketing to kids. The battle for the airwaves and print media has been won. The battle for the classrooms of the nations is just being engaged.

The Counteroffensive: Words as Weapons

The counteroffensive is being mounted by a variety of forces who - until the advent of the Internet - had few means of communication and interaction. The counteroffensive - an anti-cultural diatribe led by pagans and witches, socialists, anarchists and libertarians, webgrrls and riotgrrls, homosexuals and lesbians, environmentalists and consumer advocates - has moved from the trenches of alternative cafes and billboard defacing to the mainstream of online culture.

The counteroffensive - now armed with the tools of mass media - is a guerrilla operation using words as weapons, as described by Dery:

"The answer lies, perhaps, in the "semiological guerrilla warfare" imagined by Umberto Eco. "[T]he receiver of the message seems to have a residual freedom: the freedom to read it in a different way ... I am proposing an action to urge the audience to control the message and its multiple possibilities of interpretation," he writes. "[O]ne medium can be employed to communicate a series of opinions on another medium...The universe of Technological Communication would then be patrolled by groups of communications guerrillas, who would restore a critical dimension to passive reception.""

Or as the Quebec Public interest Research group puts it,

"We can break the homogeneity of the media monopoly by expressing ourselves with our own media. Taking back our media means taking back our freedom and engaging in a revolution of many minds against a common enemy. Through workshops, panel discussions, and lectures, events such as Liberating Media seek to encourage and inspire participants to take back our media and our freedom in the diversity of forms in which they both exist."

The methodology of counterattack involves inserting counter-memes into the media mainstream. It is the idea of the meme conceived as virus taken to its logical extreme. This idea expresses itself even in Dawkin's The Selfish Gene and is operationalized in William S. Burroughs's radical treatise, The Electronic Revolution:

"The control of the mass media depends on laying down lines of association. When the lines are cut the associational connections are broken.

I have frequently spoken of word and image as viruses or as acting as viruses, and this is not an allegorical comparison.

You will notice that this process is continually subject to random juxtapostation. Just what sign did you see in the Green Park station as you glanced up from the People? Just who called as you were reading your letter in the Times? What were you reading when your wife broke a dish in the kitchen? An unreal paper world and yet completely real because it is actually happening.

The underground press serves as the only effective counter to a growing power and more sophisticated technique used by establishment mass media to falsify, misrepresent, misquote, rule out of consideration as a priori ridiculous or simply ignore and blot out of existence: data, books, discoveries that they consider prejudicial to establishment interest.

Consider the human body and nervous system as unscrambling devices. Remember that when the human nervous system unscrambles a scrambled message this will seem to the subject like his very own ideas which just occurred to him.

Consider now the human voice as a weapon. To what extent can the unaided human voice duplicate effects that can be done with a tape recorder? Learning to speak with the mouth shut, thus displacing your speech, is fairly easy. You can also learn to speak backwards, which is fairly difficult. I have seen people who can repeat what you are saying after you and finish at the same time. This is a most disconcerting trick, particularly when practiced on a mass scale at a political rally."

Or, as put less eloquently by the Church of the Subgenius:

"We're the Happy People. Happy to live in a world of images. Images of war. Family. Crime. Fun images, that help rinse away unsightly self-images, so you can get away from the privacy of your own home. After all, aren't you what everything's here for? You're what we're here for. That's why we made everything! That's why everything made you. And that's why you made us. Who are we?"

Humble Beginnings

Forget Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. The prima donna of underground radicalism is probably Saul Alinsky, whose anti-establishment and over-the-top forms of guerilla media propelled a wide variety of alternative causes into 60s mainstream.

As one Amazon reviewer writes,

"Mr. Alinsky captures the outrage organizers have with the status quo. 'Why organize?' is the central question that permeates throughout this book, and Mr. Alinsky answers this question with a scathing attack on the powers that be, who are beholden to maintaining the status quo. Mr. Alinsky allows the reader to not just dream of a better America but doles out powerful, practical methods to either A. work within the current system to effect positive change, or B. bring the system to its knees in the quest toward positive change. An absolute must read for anyone wishing to take on the status quo of poverty, injustice, hatred, and discrimination."

If Alinsky had one major rule (other than "shock them") it was: "use their own rules against them". Consequently, Alinsky's followers employed such radical tools as the court system, community newspapers, and town hall meetings.

Early meme hackers in the Alinsky mold modified that advice only slightly: use their own words against them.

Thus, for example, the Billboard Liberation Front modified public advertising to give common messages a slightly different - and twisted - meaning. Beginning in 1977 (by dropping the "M" in "Max Factor" they highlighted the disturbing undertones in that company's slogan, "A pretty face isn't safe in this city") the BLF conducted a series of highly visible alterations in the San Francisco Bay area. The BLF was followed by many others, for example, POPaganda (Ron English). As the Apocalyptic Optimism for the End of History (Abrupt) puts it,

""Culture Jamming" sticks where rational discourse slides off. It is, simply, the viral introduction of radical ideas. It is viral in that it uses the enemy's own resources to replicate itself - copy machines, defaced billboards, Web pages. It is radical because - ideally - the message, once deciphered, causes damage to blind belief. Fake ads, fake newspaper articles, parodies, pastiche. The best CJ is totally unexpected, surprising, shocking in its implications."

In a similar vein, Team Seven practised a series of renegade construction activities. The Survival Research Laboratories in San Francisco adopted a more artistic format:

"Since its inception SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product or warfare. Since 1979, SRL has staged over 45 mechanized presentations in the United States and Europe. Each performance consists of a unique set of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices, employed in developing themes of socio-political satire. Humans are present only as audience or operators."

Meme hacking was limited by technology in the early days. Even Dery could only identify four major categories:

Adbusters is a Vancouver based anti-advertising magazine. It is perhaps best known for Buy Nothing Day and TV Turn-Off Week campaigns. In addition to its monthly magazine, Adbusters attempts to run anti-consumerism advertisements on mainstream television. The response from the networks is usually negative; Adbuster's messages are labeled "controversial" and banned. Its most recent campaign, Economic Progress Killing the Planet, was rejected by the British Advertising Clearance Council as unacceptable.

A similar agency is The Centre for Media and Democracy, which focuses not just on advertising, but on public relations generally. As the agency's Web site states,

"Unlike advertising, public relations is often hard to recognize. "The best PR is invisible," say industry insiders. To spin the news in favor of their clients, PR firms specialize in setting up phony citizens' groups and scientific "experts" who spin out contrived research using junk science."

The Centre's main vehicle, like Adbusters, is a quarterly magazine, PR Watch, and they have released two books, Toxic Sludge Is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry (1995) and Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (1999).

The term Culture Jamming has its origins in the audio agitprop arena, and specifically, with an experimental-music and art collective known as Negativeland. They write on their Web site,

"Advertising, especially the high tech seduction and emotional button pushing going on in national brand advertising, has become a special subject of interest for Negativeland because of its telling view into the successful manipulation of the mass psyche, and the degree to which it exploits our common mental environment with the promotion of personal dissatisfaction and constant desire mongering on a universal scale."

Other anti-meme artists include The Seemen, "a collaborative of some forty odd art drop outs and extreme technology inventors who enjoy exploring their taste for the dark side of applied engineering in robot/kinetic art," and the Cacophony Society, including the The Los Angeles Cacophony Society and Cacophony Midwest, which recently launched the First Annual St. Louis Santa Rampage. "The Cacophony Society is an open network of creative malcontents, guerrilla artists, slackers, hooligans, kitsch-hounds, and anyone else interested in subverting primetime reality. You may already be a member!"

Electronic Warfare

The meme hackers of the 70's and 80's were marginalized. Their reach was limited, and social commentary following their acts (and subsequent arrests) was uniformly negative. Society as a whole - so it seemed - branded them as vandals and anarchists, radicals and communists.

With increased public access to the Internet in the late 80s and early 90s, meme hacking was given a new life. While their access to mainstream media was still limited, activists could now communicate with each other in rapid, free and uncensored messages. Moreover, the Internet - and especially the World Wide Web - gave them a means of reaching directly into the mainstream consciousness, bypassing the media altogether.

Early electronic meme hacking consisted of two major tactics: slashing, and spamming.

Slashing is the appropriation of an existing meme for subcultural purposes. The term "slashing" derives from pornographic "K/S" - short for "Kirk/Spock" - stories written by Star Trek fans and published in underground fanzines.

The development of 'fan fiction' in general - and more recently, fanzines, fan Web sites, and fan discussion boards - has had the effect of removing control of the 'product' from the corporate studio and into the hands of the general public. Star Trek, in particular, has been the subject of hundreds of fan pages. When Paramount attempted to crack down on the sites (in order to promote its Microsoft-only version), fans rebelled.

The first subversive spam was probably Joe Matheny's deluge of ascii frogs sent to the White House (in return he received in good order a deluge of automated reply messages). Matheny quickly wrote a shell program to filter the auto-replies and return them to their sender, which set up an e-mail loop. With the advent of its abuse by more corporate interests, spamming has declined as a weapon of choice.

"Eduardo Kac led things off with a slide presentation demonstrating how the Web can become a life source. During his experiment in 1996, people worldwide where asked to join a teleconference, anytime during a three week period. The participants simply aimed their cameras to the heavens so that light on the other end of their transmission could be used to grow a freshly planted seed, which had been isolated in total darkness. Through the nourishment of the white lights, the seedling grew to 18" in height and was later planted outside the Art Institute of Chicago." (From Adam Karrera, "Virtual Slap: A Keynote Presentation").

The central question of electronic counterculture revolves around media itself: who owns it, who controls it, and who uses it. As Jesse Hirsh writes, "We need to examine the right to communicate, and the communication of our rights." Dery echoes this theme:

"Who will have access to this cornucopia of information, and on what terms? Will fiber-optic superhighways make stored knowledge universally available, in the tradition of the public library, or will they merely facilitate psychological carpet bombing designed to soften up consumer defenses? And what of the network news? Will it be superseded by local broadcasts, with their heartwarming (always "heartwarming") tales of rescued puppies and shocking (always "shocking") stories of senseless mayhem, mortared together with airhead banter? Or will the Big Three give way to innumerable news channels, each a conduit for information about global, national and local events germane to a specific demographic? Will cyberpunk telejournalists equipped with Hi-8 video cameras, digital scanners, and PC-based editing facilities hack their way into legitimate broadcasts? Or will they, in a medium of almost infinite bandwidth and channels beyond count, simply be given their own airtime? In short, will the electronic frontier be wormholed with "temporary autonomous zones"---Hakim Bey's term for pirate utopias, centrifuges in which social gravity is artificially suspended---or will it be subdivided and overdeveloped by what cultural critic Andrew Ross calls "the military-industrial-media complex?"

The answer lies in the nature of the Internet. Everybody will have access to information. The very nature of cyberspace is that it is interpersonal and multidirectional. There is no control and - despite the best efforts of the censors - there is no overseer. We see for the first time the elements of mainstream media on the retreat, trying to legislate, trying to litigate, trying to appropriate. But as the nature of cyberspace is communication such efforts will be in vain, for communication is deeply personal, exactly the opposite of the mass media message. We see this through concrete examples of anti-meme activities on the Net.

The Network

The Internet is about community, a realization corporate culture realized too late. Current wisdom in electronic commerce encourages the development of "community" but countercultural communities are already well established and well entrenched.

Entities such as San Francisco's Laughing Squid have been using the Internet to advertise their monthly countercultural 'tentacle sessions' for years. Alternative 'religions' - such as the Church of the SubGenius congregate online and poke fun at mainstream values and culture.

Organizations such as the The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education use the Internet to post messages, coordinate activist campaigns, and spread information. Activists are able to publicize to each other the effects of their anti-meme activities, as for example, this post describes the subversion of a political campaign:

"Two weeks ago there was a story that made the headlines in the newspaper and Compass (PEI's Evening News). The story was that a pamphlet had been distributed in the riding of Barry Hicken, our Minister of Environmental Resources. The pamphlet was made to look like a campaign pamphlet, with pictures of Hicken and the Liberal Party logo. It stated things like:

"My job has as Minister of Environmental Resources has been very rewarding. I make over $74,000 a year. My wife still can't believe it. Please, please, please vote for me. I'll get you a job. I promise.""

Agencies such as Tao "organize networks in order to defend and expand public space and the right to self-determination. (They) create knowledge through independent public interest research, and distribute it freely through participatory education." Other sites advise and promote subversive activities. The network is well entrenched and it's growing; there seems to be no interrupting the flow of communication.

Online activism also enable people to shelter themselves from the mainstream culture. One recent tactic is called junk busting, which involves using proxy software to filter banners, cookies, and mask HTTP header data. A similar initiative attacks Intel and especially Intel's PSN (Processor Serial Number). And the fictional identity of Luther Bissett - complete with Web site and e-mail address - has been offered to the community at large for "communication guerrilla actions, hacktivism, civil disobedience (electronic and not) and radical mythopoesis."

Web Ad Jamming and Spoof Sites

A wide array of anti-advertsing sites, home page spoofs, and more express more clearly than any words the sentiments of the anti-meme movement.

Spoof sites have probably been around since the early days of the World Wide Web, but in recent months their profile - and the litigation against them - has increased. The dean of corporate spoof sites is probably ®TMark (pronounced 'Art Mark'). Originally a secretive and underground agency, ®TMark has entered the public arena.

®TMark is the behind-the-scenes broker of anti-meme mayhem. Projects are suggested by readers and staff, anonymous donors line up to fund different projects, and teams of activists carry out the plan. ®TMark prenks have included switching the voice boxes in G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls, inserting homosexual couples in Sim Copter Graphics, and online, a scathing spoof site for Shell Oil, and most recently, a lavish G.W. Bush parody site.

Corporate sites in general are ripe for spoof and parody. Happyclown, Inc. is

"an exciting firm devoted to using a fresh and new approach to Corporate Communications; This young, modern and progressive Public Relations venture will make the aesthetic sensibilities of the New Generation available for the use of the familiar and trusted institutions of the Old Generation."

Hole City, for example, presents the reader with a sideways look at media moguls.

""It's a tremendous angle," says Rupert Murdoch, the media magnate whose fiery alliance with Satan has brought him fame, fortune and the Los Angeles Dodgers. "Our demographics indicate that Americans respond positively 53% of the time when we tell them the truth.""

Other anti-corporate sites include Critical Mess Media (CMM), Mess Media's DisConnection (DisCo), and ZNet Anarchy Watch.

A variation on this theme includes what the Culture Jammer's Enclyclopedia calls News Trolls:

"If there's one thing that the left and the right can agree on, it's that the news is inaccurate, biased, and is more likely to cement popular prejudice than to uncover uncomfortable truths. So there's a certain satisfaction in deliberately planting absurd fiction among all the news that's fit."

Examples of fiction include the Arm the Homeless campaign, a computer that can replace judges, and the phoney Detroit gang incident.

In Canada, underground tactics are employed by the Guerrilla Media - "media monkeywrenching for British Columbia, Canada" - purveyors of the National Post parody site and the Conrad Black Envy page:

"Finally! A Web site for all of us who are profoundly envious of the Blacks-- Conrad and Barbara-- commanders-in-chief of the world's fastest growing press empire. This site is but a humble attempt to celebrate the Blacks' words and world: their unpretentious persiflage, personal pecuniary plentitude, pertinacious pedantry, proprietorial parsimony, perspicacious pomposity, and polymorphous periphrastic preeminence."

These and more patently false news sites cause some people to warn that "you can't trust everything you read on the Internet". But their subversion is deeper - they inform the public that "you can't trust everything you read". No wonder news agencies and academics want to create "authoritative" Web news sources.

Another popular tactic reacts to the increasing commercialization of the Web. A number of sites are creating and spreading spoof Web ads. Such ads are meme hacking at its best - they lay generally ignored, silently spreading subversion.

Spoof Web ads are available on Positive Propaganda's unsorted banner page, from Chickenhead, Abrupt's Holy War Now by 'Tony Alamo', and The Corporation's twisted children's companion, Cyberbear.

The Anti-Meme

The anti-meme is probably typified by the Kitty Porn site. The idea is to take an existing meme, alter it, and thus show its unreasonable or arbitrary nature. This is not a new i praed to great effect by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche ("the transvaluation of value"). But online, such anti-memes are able for the first time to gain wide currency.

Consider the spoof Alien Visitors Information Centre. This travelogue site makes fun of Chamber-of-Commerce inspired tourist brochures. But there is a deeper transvaluation:

"Kurt Waldheim is one of the large, hairy, upright-walking beasts selected as their leader though the recent United Nations model for better campground management. As U.N. secretary-general, Waldheim's personal greetings were launched in Voyagers 1 and 2, travelling AVIC kiosks in space which also carry the sounds of chimpanzees screeching. When we made those decisions, the management did not know Mr. Waldheim helped murder thousands of fellow humans during something significant called World War II. The employees who were responsible have been sacked."

The AVIC makes the very simple point that our contemporary culture is still capable of electing mass-murderers as world leaders, a fact verified by the many ongoing conflicts and genocides today.

The anti-meme highlights the absurdity and even the moral decay of the mass-media meme:

"Our society spends a lot of time telling us that there is some brand new, fresh cultural produce, generated from thin air and sunshine, slick and clean. They package it with pretty plastic & ribbons and then feed it to us. A lot gets thrown away: the ribbons, the wrapping; culture becomes garbage, or it dies, and rots behind the refrigerator. But the new fluffy shiny stuff still gets churned out, and it gets forced between our teeth. And we are told to swallow it.

We will not swallow. We will chew, and then spit. We will play with our food, and create something new and interesting from it."

This is similar to the Adbusters "Is Economic Progress Killing Our planet" campaign, and a host of other messages pointing to the waste and absurdity of the economic order as it exists today.

The idea is to show that the sanitary culture presented in mass culture isn't the sanitary and stain-free entity the messages proclaim it to be. "The possibility of adding pimples to the retouched photo of the face on the cover of America are only now being seen as artistic territory." The anti-message is very simple: this is not good.

Corporate and cultural abuses are legion, from the Exxon Valdiz oil spill to the Union Carbide poisoning of tens of thousands of people in Bhopal, India. Yet criticism is mute. As the Overcoming Consumerism site observes,

"The often asked question, "why doesn't the media talk about corporate power?" and the frequent answer "because the corporations own the media...", really is a simplification of a wide-ranging process of power-sharing and wealth-retention that goes more to the kinds of people behind the corporations than the actual corporations themselves."

The anti-meme is an attack not only on corporate and government policies and practises, but also on the media messages themselves. Hence, for example, we see sites such as White Dot, which ask, "What do you do if you don't watch TV?"


About the Author

Stephen Downes is Information Architect at the University of Alberta.
E-mail: sdownes@ualberta.ca

References

Adbusters, at http://adbusters.org

Advertising Age, at http://www.adage.com/

The Baffler.

Peter Baumgertner and Sabine Payr, 1997. "Learning as Action: A Social Science Approach to the Evaluation of Interactive Media,". CSS (Computers in the Social Sciences) Journal, volume 5, number 2 (March/April).

David Bennahum, Meme.

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Billboard Liberation Front, at http://www.billboardliberation.com

Luther Bissett 'Personal' home page, at http://www.syntac.net/lutherblissett/

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Meredith Brooks, 1988. Bitch, Columbia Records.

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Channel One, at http://www.channelone.com

Chickenhead, Zine at http://www.chickenhead.com

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Church of the SubGenius, "We're the Happy People," http://www.subgenius.com/bigfist/answers/rants/ad/ad.html

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(dis)connection

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White Dot.

Wayne Woolley, 1996. "Florida reporter falls for phony Detroit gang hoax on Internet," Detroit News (December 6).

ZNet, Anarchy Watch.


Copyright © 1999, First Monday

Hacking Memes by Stephen Downes
First Monday, volume 4, number 10 (October 1999),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_10/downes/index.html