False Creek Geek: Internet Memes

My May column for the Yaletown View is subtitled How I Accidentally Raised $15,000 for Gay Marriage, and tells the story of Flowers for Al and Don:

On February 19, in some stranger’s online diary, I read about a great idea. People across the US were sending bouquets of flowers to random gay couples waiting in line to get married at the San Francisco City Hall. Sending flowers was both a selfless and political gesture—it showed the country that people across the nation supported the right of same-sex couples to get married.

For somebody like me with Canadian dollars, it’s also an expensive gesture—the bouquets were starting at about US $40. I thought that what somebody ought to do is quickly set up a Web site that enables supporters to make small donations—two or five or ten dollars. Then flowers could be and delivered ordered in bulk, saving more money.

I know a thing or two about the Web, so I decided to whip the site up myself. After a couple of hours of image-editing and coding, I created Flowers for Al and Don. The name is a pun on a sixties science-fiction novel, Flowers for Algernon. The site used PayPal—a common Internet currency system that enables people to spend money easily and securely online. It’s the system of choice for eBay buyers and sellers. Once the site was live, I wrote about it on my weblog. More importantly, I sent it to a few other sites and encouraged them to write about it. They did, and in ten days Flowers for Al and Don raised $15,000 from trustworthy strangers in small donations. Another Internet meme was borne.

The zoologist Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ in his book The Selfish Gene. A meme is a virally-transmitted unit of information, a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution that is analogous to a gene. Memetics is the study of memes and their cultural and social effects. Memes are everywhere, and have existed throughout human history. Catchphrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions are typical memes. A chain-letter is a meme, as is the concept of a meme itself.

The Internet is the natural habitat for memes. Why? Because the Web has evolved into the world’s biggest, fastest information exchange. Concepts can emerge, evolve, permeate and perish in days or weeks. The growing popularity of weblogs, online diaries and other frequently-updated sites combined with traditional communication mediums like email and instant-messaging means that a compelling idea can reach hundreds of thousands of people within hours.

Clearly people liked the idea of sending flowers to same-sex newlyweds in San Francisco and, later, Portland. Stories about the phenomenon appeared in, among others, the New York Times, the Guardian and Wired magazine (though, oddly, not any local papers).

I built Flowers for Al and Don thinking I might collect a couple hundred dollars and send a few bouquets. Instead, the meme took control and I spent two weeks orchestrating volunteers, talking to the media and deciding between boutonnières and corsages (some of each, obviously). The further irony is that, while I support gay marriage, I’m hardly an activist waging a battle in the US. I’m straight and Canadian.

Beware the power of the idea. Like opposable thumbs, they can show up where you least expect them.



Sue said:

This got published in the Kitsilano View as well, I noticed. They got your email address wrong somewhere in that article. It was amusing to find your article (well-written, having intellectual merit, socially conscious) alongside the rest of the publication, which I found to be pathetically shallow. I stopped counting after the tenth plastic surgeon's ad. How on earth did you get involved with that publication?

June 1, 2004 01:03 PM

Darren said:

Indeed, these magazines do typify the shallowness that is Vancouver. However, I think you'll find themes in 'Vancouver' magazine, as well as in the ads of the major newspaper.

I'm not defending the 'View' magazines--I just thought I'd like to write a column, and they let me say pretty much what I want.

I've been meaning to look into syndicating it elsewhere, but haven't really had the time or motivation.

June 1, 2004 01:34 PM

Boris Mann said:

You know where to find us if you want to be a Contributor. Wed love to have someone of your writing talent on board.

We've got one signed up, with a set of other abilities on the site, including being able to post articles [1]. It's not "live" yet, but incremental feature changes as well as a face-lift are on the horizon.

[1] http://www.urbanvancouver.com/article

June 1, 2004 01:39 PM

Darren said:

Thanks there Boris, but I was thinking more of the 'get-paid' variety of syndication.

June 1, 2004 01:44 PM

Myron said:

Funny you should mention "Selfish Gene" - I've started reading it and put it on my pile of "Finish this sometime" books (alongside Copleston's History of Philosophy, if you can believe it) and now find myself barraged by meme-talk (complete with a fascinating book on value systems and organizational philosophy called "Spiral Dynamics") in books and magazines that I read. Question: is "Selfish Gene", in your opinion, a good starting point, filler upper, or companion piece...or maybe even that ever-elusive be-all/end-all???

Maybe I'll have to push it to the front of the list.

June 1, 2004 02:29 PM

Darren said:

I'm no expert on this subject, and I'm not even sure I finished that book, but Dawkins is certainly a giant in his field, and this is his most-discussed book, so that's kind of an endorsement, I think.

June 1, 2004 02:46 PM

Boris Mann said:

Who said we won't pay you or give you some other ancillary benefits that you find worthwhile?

(translation: we're working on it)

June 2, 2004 12:36 PM

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