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 PayPalÃ¯Â¿Â½a 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 boutonnieres 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.