Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tags, Memes and 8 Random Facts

I mentioned that I got tagged (thanks Stew) and that I'd take a look and see whether I'd react to it or not. I've had a look now. It was the 8 random facts tag that's been cropping up on a lot of blogs lately. I've decided not to continue it. Here's why.

I don't much like tags but I do find them interesting. I find them interesting as memes in a meme pool and I certainly see the parallels that can be drawn between genes and memes within the tag context. But within a tag it is only the "you must include these rules" part that is the meme. The rest, the content that is unique to each poster, is not a meme, although some postings could conceivable become such. So tags as memes are really just simple rule sets in text. Some of these rule sets will be better at encouraging people to forward them on and some will not. For example it may be true that one tag that asks each participant to forward to 8 bloggers may be more successful than one that only asks the tag be passed on to 4 bloggers. It's possible that the reverse will be true.

There is something even more interesting at play here however. I've never seen a tag rule set that exceeds much more than 20 lines. Some are shorter. But if we were to assume, just for the sake of a thought experiment, that not only could we assume a maximum number of lines of text but an actual maximum number of characters then within the character set of anyone language we could calculate the total possible number of tag rule sets that could be written. This would be the gene space (or meme space) of all tags and those that actually are circulating would be a tiny subset of all those that could be.

A vast majority of all possible combinations for the arrangement of characters within the length of the sequence would be nonsense. They would not reproduce because the rules would be a meaningless mess of characters. Others would not reproduce because they contained instructions that were too difficult for blog authors to follow. Others would fail to reproduce for other reasons, but all of those reasons would be due to the interaction of those instructions with the minds of bloggers.

Memes, and therefore tags, are interesting. There will be traceable relationships between the order of characters in a tag rule set and its reproductive success. The relationships can be studied and understood and particular instructions within a rule set may enable some tags to reproduce better within certain environments of the blogsphere whilst they would fail completely in others. There will be specialisation and all within 20 or so lines of text. Of course the number of lines isn't important really, the point stands.

Selective pressure is of course provided by the minds that make up the blogsphere. So these tags can be expected to adapt to that pressure. In turn they are likely to change that environment and so the process continues. Tags really are memes and memes really are replicators and mutation and non-random selection are both at work.

It seems to me that evolution on the tag meme scale could happen very rapidly, especially due to the fact that the mutation is also largely non-random, and that speciation will, and probably has occurred. When a blogger has limited time and gets tagged twice there must be competition between the tags involved. I haven't searched, but I wonder if there are already people studying this. Linguists may find it interesting. On the face of it tags seem to look worthwhile.

But I'm still not interested in reproducing them myself. I don't care about the contents of most of them and I don't welcome the obligation to pass that obligation onto others (although I do welcome having been though of, so thanks again Stew). I might change my mind if there was some tracking built in so that a tag could be started and its reproduction and adaptation could be studied but right now the selective pressure of my mind chooses die for every tag that comes my way.

But it's worthy of note that if we started firing off randomly generated tags in the blogsphere we would see them filtered by selection first to reveal those that actually contained real words from a language and secondly those that provided the most appealing instruction sets to bloggers within specific interest groups. To all those that think evolution can't possibly account for complex life forms the above illustrates how the same essential process can account simply and probably rapidly for even the complex thoughts of human beings with no need for deliberate design. Imagine how fast that would be speeded up if we added just one already prepared instruction to the rule set saying "make more of me" or "pass this on to N bloggers". The point about life is that evolution starts at the point that relatively simple molecules first formed with that instruction. In fact they were the instruction "replicate". The rest is natural history.

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