Pass It On

Scott McLemee decides it's better to meme than be memed.

June 30, 2005

One sign of the great flexibility of American English -- if also of its high tolerance for ugliness -- is the casual way users will turn a noun into a verb. It happens all the time. And lately, it tends to be a matter of branding. You "xerox" an article and "tivo" a movie. Just for the record, neither Xerox nor TiVo is  very happy about such unauthorized usage of its name. Such idioms are, in effect, a dilution of the  trademark.

Which creates an odd little double bind for anyone with the culture-jamming instinct to Stick It To The Man. Should you absolutely refuse to give free advertising to either Xerox or TiVo by using their names as verbs, you have actually thereby fallen into line with corporate policy. Then again, if you defy their efforts to police ordinary language, that means repeating a company name as if it were something natural and inevitable. See, that's how they get ya.

On a less antiglobalizational note, I've been trying to come up with an alternative to using "meme" as a verb. For one thing, it is too close to "mime," with all the queasiness that word evokes.

As discussed here on Tuesday, meme started out as a noun implying a theory. It called to mind a more or less biological model of how cultural phenomena (ideas, fads, ideologies, etc.) spread and reproduce themselves over time. Recently the term has settled into common usage -- in a different, if related, sense. It now applies to certain kinds of questionnaires or discussion topics that circulate within (and sometimes between) blogospheric communities.

There does not seem to be an accepted word to name the creation and initial dissemination of a meme. So it could be that "meme" must also serve, for better or worse, as a transitive verb.

In any case, my options are limited.... Verbal elegance be damned: Let's meme.

The ground rules won't be complicated. The list of questions is short, but ought to yield some interesting responses. With luck, the brevity will speed up circulation.

In keeping with meme protocol, I'll "tap"a few bloggers to respond. Presumably they will do likewise. However, the invitation is not restricted to that handful of people: This meme is open to anyone who wants to participate.

So here are the questions:

(1) Imagine it's 2015. You are visiting the library at a major research university. You go over to a computer terminal (or whatever it is they use in 2015) that gives you immediate access to any book or journal article on any topic you want. What do you look up? In other words, what do you hope somebody will have written in the meantime?

(2) What is the strangest thing you've ever heard or seen at a conference? No names, please. Refer to "Professor X" or "Ms. Y" if you must. Double credit if you were directly affected. Triple if you then said or did something equally weird.

(3) Name a writer, scholar, or otherwise worthy person you admire so much that meeting him or her would probably reduce you to awestruck silence.

(4) What are two or three blogs or other Web sites you often read that don't seem to be on many people's radar?
Feel free to discard anything you don't care to answer.

To get things started, I'm going to tap a few individuals -- people I've had only fairly brief contact with in the past. As indicated, however, anyone else who wants to respond is welcome to do so. The initial list:

Okay, that should do for now.

An afterthought on the first question -- the one about getting a chance to look things up in a library of the future: Keep in mind the cautionary example of Enoch Soames, the minor late-Victorian poet whose story Max Beerbohm tells. He sold his soul to the devil for a chance to spend an afternoon in the British Library, 100 years in the future, reading what historians and critics would eventually say about his work.

Soames ends up in hell a little early: The card catalog shows that posterity has ignored him even more thoroughly than his contemporaries did.

Proof, anyway, that ego surfing is really bad for you, even in the future. A word to the wise.


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