Some thoughts on memes

So I’ve seen seeing this “crush tag” thing floating around LiveJournal, and visited the site and got one. It looks like this:

Crush this person!
Get your own CrushTag!

Got me to thinking about online memes in general. Not just memes in the sense of “little things you put in your blog that other people see and put in their blog as well,” but memes in the original sense of “self-replicating ideas.”

There are a lot of them out there. Most of them are offered up with little or no supporting evidence; many of them, such as the meme that vaccinations are a conspiracy on the part of pharmaceutical companies to “keep people sick,” spread despite a great deal of contradictory evidence.

The interesting thing about the Internet is that when a person visits a Web site, his assessment of how reliable and trustworthy that Web site is depends a great deal of how the Web site looks and not at all on who wrote the content of the Web site. This creates all kinds of problems for security people; people who fall for scam “phishing” sites will ignore the URL in the address bar and base their decision on whether to trust the site solely on the way the site looks. Since copying an entire PayPal or bank site can be done with only a couple mouse clicks, that’s bad news for anyone who cares about security.

But issues of phishing aside, the trust people place in Web sites often interests me, because the way that people make their decisions seems opaque to me. For example: the meme site that generated the crush icon above offers a space for a person to type a username, a password, and an email address. Nothing else. Since many people use the same password for all their online activities, it would be trivial to create a meme site whose purpose was to steal passwords from the users. (Note that I am not saying the “crushme” site does this!)

I’ve been debating, on and off, for several years the idea of putting up a Web site that makes some totally outrageous claim, probably about medicine or health. I’ve been thinking of talking about non-existent studies that support whatever the claim is, putting pictures that claim to support the claim, making emotional arguments in favor of the claim; all for the purpose of seeing how many people will believe anything that presses their emotional triggers, even if the claim is pure fabrication made of whole cloth without one single shred of evidence to support it. I have a suspicion the results would depress me.

You can click on my crush link if you like anyway. 🙂