Memes and metaphors in networked technologies

In this blog post I want to explore how the concepts of memes and metaphors can be used to better our understanding of the patterns of user behaviour we are seeing in digital and networked technologies.

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the affordances that social and participatory media offer in terms of fostering new forms of communication, collaboration and information exchange. The speed with which it is now possible to share and the extent of our digital networks provides opportunities for unprecedented forms of interaction. In trying to understand this new phenomena I want to explore how the notions of memes and metaphors might be useful in explaining what is happening.


The notion of memes dates back to a fundamental aspect of human nature, namely story telling. Through the ages humans have communicated and co-constructed knowledge through stories, from the camp fire through to interaction via today’s technologies. Building on this, the concept of memes refers to the notion of how a particular idea gets picked up and spread from person to person. Susan Blackmore in her book ‘the meme machine’, (Blackmore 1999) argues that what makes us different from other animals is our ability to imitate. She refers to this as a meme:

When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This “something” can then be passed on again, and again, and so take on a life of its own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a behaviour, a piece of information … but if we are going to study it we shall need to give it a name.

In more recent work she[1] defines Internet memes as:

something that spreads like wildfire on the web- seemingly for no explicable reason. A meme can be as sublime as one of the many intricate Downfall parodies or as ridiculous as a rickroll – both reached millions of people.

The speed with which memes can spread via technologies now means that ideas can be shared at a near instantaneous speed. However a downside of this, it could be argued, is that there is a convergence of thought around particular memes. For example, in an e-learning context a number of memes are currently prevalent, such as: the notion of openness, distributed and collective intelligence and connectivism, Communities of Practice, etc. Whilst there are clear benefits to having a collective shared and co-constructed understanding, is there a danger that innovation and creativity will be stifled? How do new ideas get voiced and picked up amongst the noise of prominent discourses?


A number of metaphors have evolved to explain the way in which we interact with digital technologies. The limitation of existing vocabulary around space and time restricts our understanding of the nature of interactions through digital technologies and does not fully explain what is happening. In the early days of the use of the Internet, people talked about virtual cafes and lecture theatre, directly mapping the physical space onto the online environment. However, as our interaction in these digital technologies has evolved the patterns of user behaviour arguably go beyond the simple notion of virtual presence, it is complex, distributed and fragmented. For example, at anyone moment others are connected to us in a variety of ways, reading a tweet or blog, communicating via Skype, answering emails, taking part in a synchronous audio conference, accessing our contributions through Google.  I have previously suggested that we should extend the concept of space and time to include two additional categories, namely: functional and connected.(Conole in Lee and McLoghlin 2010)

What is the nature of digital networks and our interactions with them and why are they so important? Networks and connection with others is a fundamental human characteristic and has always been important but what is different with new technologies? Well I would argue there are a number of significant characteristics of new technologies that make networking in a digital context different, these include: the size of the network, the scale, and the speed of interaction possible. Through digital networks viral near instantaneous viral spread of memes is now possible.

I want to argue that we need new metaphors to explain the interactions that are occurring in digital networks. I think we can learn a lot through application of metaphors derived from ecology. For example, the notion of evolving digital landscapes, spaces which are colonized and adapted, the harnessing of the affordances of different technologies within this digital landscape. The Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest applies. There is an adaptation of technologies to meet particular needs and conversely adapted of users as the co-evolve with the use of these technologies and adapt their practice.

To illustrate this I will now provide some examples. The first focuses on the evolution of the use of Twitter. For example the ways in which we have seen the emergence of the hashtag as a means of aggregating tweets around a particular topic and the use of @twitterID to target a particular user. There is also the ability to link to other activity streams such as Linkedin, fb and Google+.  My second example explores the ways in which academic discourse is now being articulated across different media. From Twitter through fb/Google+ etc through to academic publications. Essentially representing a shift from a stream of consciousness through peer debate, peer review and validation and finally a consolidated set of ideas.

There have been a number of theories around the notion of online interactions and communities. Anderson and Dron’s work for example on groups, networks and collectives is useful in illustrating the spectrum of connectedness from tightly defined groups through to loosely defined collectives (Dron and Anderson 2007). Each has a value and a purpose in different contexts.

There is a fragmentation of identity across the network vs. the sum is greater than the parts. Through networked technology it is now possible to have an amplification of ideas by others across different media. However there are also issue of trust, who do you trust and why and how do you come to trust them? Networked technologies enable unprecedented levels of connectiveness and different types of interaction with different people. The theory of 6 degrees of separation is now arguably down to 3 through these networked technologies.

Metaphors of learning

In terms of metaphors for learning, a simple but effective one is the notion of campfires, watering holes, mountain tops and the cave. Thornberg[2] expands on these as follows.

The campfire. For thousands of years, storytelling was a mechanism for teaching. While it was not the only mechanism, it was (and is) an important one. Through storytelling, the wisdom of elders was passed to the next generation. Good stories have always embodied a blend of the cognitive and affective domains — in fact, in story, there is no separation between the two.

The watering hole. Just as campfires resonate deeply across space and time, watering holes have an equal status in the pantheon of learning places. Virtually every hominid on the planet has, at one time in its historical existence, needed to gather at a central source for water. During these trips to the watering hole, people shared information with their neighbors — those within their own village, as well as those from neighboring villages and travelers on their way to or from a distant village. The watering hole became a place where we learned from our peers — where we shared the news of the day.

The cave. The learning community of the campfire brought us in contact with experts, and that of the watering hole brought us in contact with peers. There is another primordial learning environment of great importance: the cave — where we came in contact with ourselves.

The mountain top. This is where we present our ideas and our learning to the world.

Other theoretical perspectives

Another interesting take on metaphors which I think has potential application to understanding digital interactions is Morgan’s notions of organisational metaphors.[3] These include: organisation as machine (emphasising the structural aspects of organisations), brain (organisation as information processing systems), organism (a living ecosystem), culture (organisation as being made up of mini-cultures with different customs and values) and political (highlighting the relationship between different interests, conflicts and power dynamics). How might viewing online interactions through these different lenses be useful?

A number of other theories might be useful in terms of explaining online interactions. Activity theory and the concept of mediating artefacts is useful as it provides a lens that takes into account the context within which we interact in online spaces. Actor Network Theory (ANT) might be useful as it considers both human and non-human objects as part of a digital, extended network. I think this links nicely to George Siemens concept of Connectivism.

Finally, the concepts of knots and rhizomes might be useful. Engeström,[4] also uses a biological metaphor through considering the notion of mycorrhizae as one means of understanding complex modern working practices – nodal, interconnected, mainly unseen and distributed. He draws on Deleuze and Guattari (1987) concepts of a ‘rhizome’, which emphasizes the importance of horizontal and multidirectional connections in human lives, in contrast to the dominant vertical, tree-like images of hiearchy.


What other metaphors and analogies might we apply that have been developed in other disciplines that focus on explaining and understanding complex dynamic systems? Is it possible to combine a number of metaphors and apply them to understanding socio-cultural human dynamics through technologies?


Blackmore, S. (1999). The meme machine. Oxford and New York, Oxford University.

Dron, J. and T. Anderson (2007). Collectives, networks and groups in social software for e-Learning. Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education Quebec. Retrieved Feb. 16: 2008.           

Lee, M. J. W. and C. McLoghlin (2010). Web 2.0-based e-learning: applying social informative for tertiary teaching. Hershey, PA, IGI Global.