Planking and the contagiousness of culture


It was shortly after 4.30am on a Sunday morning when Acton Beale, 20, fell to his death from a balcony to the concrete of a car park seven storeys below. He wasn’t pushed, and he didn’t jump – he was simply trying to join in.

Beale, apparently on the way home from a night out with friends, had been attempting to lie on the balcony railing of an apartment – at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, Australia – while having his picture taken. The photographic evidence would then have been posted on Facebook to be admired and rated by strangers around the world. Instead, Beale slipped, and the burgeoning craze known as ‘planking’ claimed its first victim.

Planking has its recent origins in the ‘lying-down game’, which (as far as such things can be accurately determined – US comedian Tom Green claims to have invented a precursor in 1990) began in the north-east of England in the summer of 2009.

In September of that year the game made headlines when seven doctors and nurses in Swindon were suspended for playing it while on duty. Through the internet the activity spread, taking on different names in different parts of the world. By the start of 2011 it was truly global, with hundreds of thousands of participants. Celebrities have got in on the act (Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, British tennis hopeful Laura Robson at Wimbledon), but planking remains a pastime driven by the grassroots.

How could planking become so involving that people risked arrest or their own lives to participate?”

To take part in the game, you mimic a plank – lying face down and expressionless, legs straight and together, toes pointed. Your arms must stay straight by your side, with fingers pointed. There must be an audience (kudos is earned for public planking). Somebody must take a picture of the plank, and then you share the picture online – usually on Facebook, although there are myriad other planking portals.

Just a bit of stupid fun, then. On the face of it, planking is so inane that it would struggle to keep a group of ten-year-olds occupied for a playtime – how has it become such a widespread and sticky trend? How could it become so involving that people risked arrest or their own lives to participate? The search for a reason why such behaviours or ideas – big or small, important or ephemeral – spread has led to the emergence of a controversial theory: memetics.

Photo: Apichart Weerawong/AP/Press Association Images

Photo: Apichart Weerawong/AP/Press Association Images

Memetics originated from the work of evolutionary biologist and atheist heavyweight Richard Dawkins in ‘The Selfish Gene’, published in 1976. Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ to describe a “unit of culture” which could replicate and be transmitted in a way similar to a gene. “Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission,” said Dawkins. “In that, although basically conservative, it can give rise to a form of evolution.” The word meme derived from the Ancient Greek mimeme (“something imitated”) – although Dawkins also admits he simply wanted a monosyllable that sounded like ‘gene’.

The idea stirred interest. Since his book was about genetics, Dawkins never laid out a full theory for how memes behaved and are transferred. As a result, during the ’80s various scientists (from different disciplines, including sociology and biology) developed the concept in different ways. Memetics as a more fully-fledged discipline didn’t emerge until 1996, with the publication of two key books by diverse authors: ‘Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme’ by Richard Brodie, the Microsoft programmer who created Word; and ‘Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society’ by Aaron Lynch, a mathematician and philosopher.

And then in 1999, Susan Blackmore published ‘The Meme Machine’, which drew together the ideas in previous works as well as more ambitiously pitting memetics against other theories of cultural evolution – attempting to use it to explain huge topics, such as the evolution of language. Blackmore was also careful to make a distinction between genes and memes – although the latter was analogous to the former in terms of being a replicator, this did not mean that memes were exactly like genes in other ways. The key behaviour was in the way memes were copied.

So what are memes? Put simply, they are bits of information copied from person to person through imitation. Memes can be global or local, mundane or profound: the act of wearing earrings, slang, dances, folk stories, etiquette, racism, religion. They can be ideas, behaviours or anything else that can be imitated. They can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – there is no defined morality to memes. All memes do is replicate – they will get themselves copied if they can (just like Dawkins’s ‘selfish’ genes).

Some memes are copied through generations for reasons that seem clear: they are useful, either for the individual or for society. Looking both ways before crossing the road, respect for the property of others, saying please and thank you – the longevity and successful propagation of these memes can be put down to the fact that they allow us to live, or live more comfortably.

How, then, does memetic theory explain a person imitating a 2×4?

Memetics has its roots in the idea of ‘universal Darwinism’ – the idea that what most of us know as natural selection determines all design, not just biological. There are three elements to the ‘evolutionary algorithm’ that ensures natural selection takes place: variation, selection and heredity. Creatures vary, most die, and if those that survive pass on the traits that helped them to survive to their offspring, then those offspring are better adapted to survive in the circumstances in which all this took place.

But it’s not only the useful memes that get copied. In ‘The Meme Machine’, Blackmore argues that memes began as soon as humans started imitating each other. Some of what we imitated was useful for survival – hunting, lighting fires – and other things were not – wearing feathers in our hair, painting our faces. Memes compete for our attention and brain space. She goes further to argue that if only the useful genes won, we might have economical, smaller brains; but the memes themselves drove us to have bigger brains, better able to store and pass on more memes. This is why our brains are peculiar: why we like religion, or art, or slapstick comedy.

Photo: Sun xiumin/AP/Press Association Images

Photo: Sun Xiumin/AP/Press Association Images

And there are aspects of planking that make it an ideal candidate for survival. Firstly, planking is simple. The barrier to participation in 2011 is extraordinarily low (the ability to lie down, and access to a camera and the internet), and the instructions are unambiguous and easy to follow. In memetics, this is called ‘copying-fidelity’. Memes spread through imitation, but imitation can itself cause variation through a Chinese whispers effect. For this reason memes can evolve and change over time, often becoming nearly unrecognisable in the process – think of folk stories, or the soldier’s salute that was once the act of a knight raising his helmet-guard to show a friendly colleague his face.

Not only is planking simple, but its instructions are open for anyone to see (on Facebook, if you’re interested). This also makes for high copying-fidelity. If you are given a slice of cake and verbally told what the ingredients are, you may go away and make a similar cake. If you then pass the recipe on, orally among your friends or through the generations, the fiftieth cake will bear little relation to the first. If, however, you are passing around the written recipe, the copies can (theoretically) be exact.

The second necessity for meme survival and propagation is fecundity. This is a product of how ‘sticky’ the meme is, and how many people come into contact with it.  As Dawkins puts it: “When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitise my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitise the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”

The internet and the digital age can act as accelerants of meme spread by increasing the speed at which memes are propagated and the sheer number of people they come into contact with. ‘Know Your Meme’ was a video series website that began in December 2007 and aimed to track and record the spread of popular internet memes. The associated Internet Meme Database contains more than 800 entries, including Rickrolling (placing erroneously-named links around the web that led to videos of Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’), LOLcats (pictures of cats posted with baby-talk funny captions), FAIL (pictures of dramatically unsuccessful events or people falling short of expectations with the simple caption ‘Fail’) and the ‘Star Wars kid’ (a video clip of a high school student from Quebec pretending to be a Jedi while wielding a golf ball retriever like a lightsaber, which was re-edited to include the necessary special effects).

As we focus on the instantaneous nature of the internet, we often forget that longevity is in many ways its more important facet”

But while digital channels can expand reach and accelerate spread, this means nothing unless the meme sticks – that is, people imitate it. As well as the brute simplicity of planking,  controversy was its most effective form of marketing. Long before the internet, people, particularly younger people, have been attracted to transgressive, attention-seeking, competitive and thrill-seeking activities. Happy slapping (hitting a stranger while being filmed on a mobile phone) and tombstoning (jumping from cliffs or other structures into deep water) are other examples of memes that have resulted in serious injury or death, while grabbing headlines and public attention.

Two days before Beale’s death, Nate Shaw, another 20-year-old Australian, had been arrested for planking on the bonnet of an unoccupied police car. When the arrest hit the news channels, the Planking Australia Facebook page surged from 8,000 fans to over 100,000. There were a spate of other incidences of public planking in Queensland that were picked up in the press, forcing even Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard to comment on the issue. “There’s a difference between a harmless bit of fun done somewhere that’s really safe and taking a risk with your life,’’ Gillard told reporters in Sydney. “Everybody likes a bit of fun, but the focus has to be on keeping yourself safe first.” Arguably, this kind of warning only makes the activity more appealing.

Ian Nicholson/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Photo: Ian Nicholson/PA Archive/Press Association Images

The final defining factor for meme-survival is longevity. Fads are memes that are short lived, and often contained to a specific demographic. Here, again, the internet was key to planking’s successful spread. As we focus on the speed and instantaneous nature of the internet, we often forget that longevity is in many ways its more important facet. A single person may have engaged in planking once, posted a single picture, and then moved on. A group of friends might keep the game going for a summer. But as all the planking pictures are stored online, in perpetuity, the meme spreads; even as the original plankers move on, new ones can join.

Memetics provides a fascinating, compelling way of looking at analysing something as seemingly inexplicable as the planking craze. But the theory (or science, to some) has its critics. Memes, if we accept their existence, are abstract and difficult to quantify and measure. The American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould summed up the views of many back in 1996 when he dismissed the idea of memes as a ‘meaningless metaphor’. In 2001, another scientist, Luis Benitez Bribiesca, published ‘Memetics: A Dangerous Idea’, in which he rubbished the theory as ‘pseudoscientific dogma’. Bribiesca reiterated that memes were abstract “imaginary entities” that therefore could not be proven scientifically; he also argued that transmission of memes would be too unstable given that they often lacked a ‘code script’ (DNA, for genes; the written recipe for a cake) that ensured copying-fidelity, and the high rate of likely mutation as memes are passed on. These views are held by many others, in all branches of the sciences.

Memetics never fully developed into a unified body of scientific thought. The Journal of Memetics ceased publication in 2005. Richard Brodie left both memetics and programming behind to profit from his analytical skills on the professional poker circuit. Aaron Lynch distanced himself from the labels ‘memes’ and ‘memetics’, and adopted the term ‘thought contagionist’; he died in 2005.

But the rise to ubiquity of the internet since the birth of memetics, and other advances in technology, are leading to a renewed interest in the idea of memes. In 2008 Blackmore identified a ‘third replicator’ (after genes and memes) which she called ‘techno-memes’ or ‘temes’. Her argument is that with temes, the replication and copying happen outside of humans, through technology. And this year, Adam McNamara, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Surrey, published a paper on the possibility of identifying and measuring memes using neuroimaging technology. There is a strong possibility that memetics will become more measurable, and more relevant.

Memetics itself is a meme. It will evolve, and spread – how far is impossible to know. But as a method of making sense of the rapid spread of sometimes bizarre and counter-intuitive behaviours, ideas and other cultural medium in a chaotic and fast-paced digital world it’s a promising if tentative first step.

And if this meme sticks, it may help us explain why somebody died while pretending to be a plank.

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