“Sizzle vs. Steak” and the Misunderstanding of Memes

By Jeremy Trevelyan Burman, Department of Psychology, York University
We are pleased to present this guest blog post from Jeremy Burman, who is contract faculty at York University, where he is also working to complete his doctorate in psychology.  We invited him to write this guest column after his new article—“The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976-1999” —was featured as a nominee for the Ig Nobel Prize.  (This article, which you can get here for free, is now its journal’s top download.)  Having also worked as a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and in R&D at several start-ups during the Tech Bubble, Burman’s perspective balances the competing interests navigated by those in the KMb field. His post below touches on aspects of crowdsourcing, social media, and the construction of meaning, which are all involved in the public understanding of the knowledge we mobilize.
If ideas spread like viruses (as “memes”), then ignorance is a disease. It can either be cured, or prevented. And that’s all there is to it.
The ignorant are encouraged to take their medicine for their own good. They are to be pitied, treated, and—if possible—cured.  If they resist, the cure is sometimes forced upon them.
Recall: The God Delusion.  (If you haven’t read the book, you can get a sense of it by watching the documentary.)
But if ideas aren’t really like viruses, and there’s no such thing as “memes,” then we ought to think differently about how we respond to ignorance.  That’s what my recent article is really about.
Academics aren’t interested in sizzle
If we believe that messages are “infectious,” then we are led to search for the most “virulent” version of our message that we can find.  We will believe that the most infectious idea is the most easily mobilized.
But this kind of thinking is misleading.  It encourages us to focus on the wrong thing: instead of communicating an idea’s meaning, we start trying to sell its features.  We start to focus on “sizzle,” rather than “steak.”
That’s not what academics do.  It’s not how we are trained to think and act.  And it’s not what we care about.
In my teaching, I don’t sell ideas.  Instead, I encourage my students to make ideas meaningful.  Since I teach developmental psychology, I challenge them to think of ways to use our course materials to improve the lives of children everywhere.  Most recently, I have taken this challenge to Wikipedia.
Wikipedia: Bane or boon?
If ideas are like viruses, then there is no point in trying to fix Wikipedia. Either it is infected, and dangerous, or it soon will be.  Actually, I think that’s why students are told not to use it: since they haven’t yet been inoculated with a proper education, they might get infected and hurt.
The distrust of Wikipedia is little more than a reflection of the misunderstanding that I’ve tried to address in my article.  The simple truth is that Wikipedia works better than any other encyclopedia ever created.  It’s a great first stop when you’re trying to figure out how to approach a topic.  And it succeeds, in the end, because it allows lots of people to work collectively to fix the errors they can see.  Whenever someone has tried to bring in the experts, as a cure to ignorance, the result has been abject failure.
Instead of trying to fix Wikipedia myself, as I once did, I now guide my students through the creation of their own Wiki projects in a protected site hosted on a private server at York University.  As a result, they learn the difference between “sizzle” (memes) and “steak” (meanings).  They become critical consumers of what Wikipedia has to offer.  And they learn the skills they need to fix it.
Teaching Wikipedia, mobilizing knowledge
By the end of this year alone, I will have taught 350 students to find mistakes at Wikipedia and fix them.  But I am not spreading an infection: my students aren’t replicating the “idea viruses” to which I expose them in class.  Instead, they are working to help children by communicating the results published in peer reviewed journals.  And they are using those results to correct our popular misbeliefs.
My students are mobilizing knowledge at a massive scale.  They are working with content, not with cures; with steak, not sizzle.  Eventually, we will all benefit from their efforts.
The very notion that one might attempt such a thing is unthinkable if we believe that ideas are infectious.  Fortunately, that turns out not to be the case.  It’s based on a misunderstanding.
There’s no such thing as “memes.”  Thus: if we instead recognize that the community of Wikipedians will fix what mistakes they can see, then our challenge shifts from mobilizing knowledge in order to prevent or cause infections toward mobilizing knowledge in order to help others look more carefully or see more clearly.
Academics, and Wikipedians, need your help
What I’m suggesting is something academics are trained to do: make it possible to correct mistakes, misbeliefs, and misunderstandings.  For the most part, it’s also something we’re good at.  And the community of knowledge mobilizers is perfectly positioned to help.
My article used history as a way to show how the idea of “idea viruses” became something we could believe in; how it became possible for ideas to be thought of as being “infectious.”  (How the “meme” could come to be treated as a scientific object.)  The larger issue that I intended to highlight, though, is how the resulting understanding ought to affect how we think about communicating scientific ideas; how we share meaning.
Crowd-sourced social media, like Wikipedia, is where the knowledge produced by academics needs to end up.  That’s where the largest audience is.  But that’s also where the popular misunderstandings are being made, as amateur knowledge mobilizers misunderstand the academic message and reconstruct it in a way that’s more consistent with their beliefs.
That, ultimately, is the challenge for professional knowledge mobilizers.  For academics, the goal is not to sell; the goal is to share.  We want everyone to have steak.  But you’re the experts: Can you help us deliver? (Can you increase the impact of our work?)  How?

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 Burman is a writer and a teacher, but uses his efforts in each to inform the other.  If you want to read the essay that’s behind all of this, you can get it here for free.  This is an Open Access article; if you’d like to share the link, you are welcome to do so.  You can also visit his website here.