Virus of the Mind

The novel coronavirus. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). The first pandemic of my lifetime to virtually close the United States. With this post I hope to propose a connection between the current pandemic and a book I read last summer, Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by Richard Brodie.

Logos and marketing tools are “viruses of the mind”. Brodie is the creator of create Microsoft Word so I learned a lot of new vocabulary trying to keep up with his writing.

In 2009, Richard Brodie published this work of research investigating how cultural icons become so well known and transferred through society so quickly. The following is an incredibly abbreviated summary of the book.

In cultures, certain ideas seem to catch on and are shared more quickly than others. These ideas by definition are memes (pronounced MEEM) which is “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture”. This notion of meme has been hijacked by the social media culture to refer to an easily shareable image.

Image result for this is fine meme
A classic ‘meme’.
Image result for thinking meme
Memes are usually rich with sarcasm.

While I read Virus of the Mind an interesting statistic caught my attention. The term ‘meme’ was first coined in 1976 in the book The Selfish Gene. 1976!

How could something so culturally relevant in 2020 have been coined in 1976? This notion leads directly into the point of this post. A true virus, or virus of the mind, starts as single unit and grows exponentially through sharing. True exponential growth is y = abx where ‘a’ is the initial amount, ‘b’ is the growth factor, and ‘x’ is time. ‘y’ is the total number of virus, or memes being circulated.

Image result for exponential growth curve
Sharing is slow at first and then increases quickly, exponentially.
Image result for covid 19 cases graph
The number of reported cases outside of China seems to nicely follow this expected exponential growth for a virus.

The images above seem to highlight the similarity between the “virus of the mind” idea of a meme spreading and the actual spread of the COVID-19 across the globe.

In my home state of Michigan, the news reports and social media feeds have been bombarded with COVID-19 information this past week. Coming to a dramatic head on March 12, 2020 when colleges and universities began to move all classes to online platforms. The closing of colleges and universities accompanied the cancellation of sporting events and group gatherings of more than 250 people. Did the growth of Google search popularity of the COVID-19 virus match the rate COVID-19 cases in the United States? No. As the graph of search result rankings below shows, the past two days have outpaced the exponential growth of the virus itself. The past two days have moved up in a near vertical jump, rather than the progressive growth of an exponential curve.

The United States Google interest seems to jump very quickly on March 12, 2020.

I believe we are currently fighting against two viruses. COVID-19 and the virus of social media hysteria. Brodie poses the question, “Will there be a mental plague?” I would offer the empty shelves of toilet paper and hand-sanitizer as evidence that as a society we are consumed by the social media plague. At our local Meijer hand-sanitizer shelves were empty while a stash of hand-soap was still available. The CDC and WHO top two recommendations for slowing the spread are washing hands with warm water and soap and social distancing. Wash with soap, not hand-sanitizer! The social media feeds are littered with empty hand-sanitizer shelves and posts warning of high hand-sanitizer costs. So which is ruling the mind of cosumers? Rational thought and scientific advice or media hysteria? COVID-19 is real and stocking up on a couple weeks of supplies does make sense. Buying a cart load of toilet paper to last through October is unnecessary and not supported by the COVID-19 timeline.

If you use this much toilet paper in two weeks, COVID-19 is a lesser worry…

In China, the numbers of survivors is now growing faster than the number of deaths due to COVID-19. The world is closing down much faster than before in an effort to “flatten the curve” and ease tension on healthcare systems. This is a global learning opportunity and I pray the positive lessons learned outweigh the damage done to families, industry, and the economy.

Protective measures help the strain on healthcare systems.

One takeaway from the book Virus of the Mind is that social media has allowed a meme to spread much faster than a typical virus. The hit rate for a popular culture meme grows much faster than something truly viral. The spike is faster and the drop-off in popularity is equally as quick. I can only hope the social media hysteria surrounding this current pandemic will drop-off as quickly as it set in.

“This too shall pass”. During this unprecedented time I hope we can all find ways to reconnect with nature, each other, and focus our energy away from the draw of media. The path of least resistance will be to settle in on the couch and binge marathons of media. Rekindle the more traditional ways to entertain while many of us have the time. Journal, sort through old collections of stuff around the house, call a friend you haven’t found the time to connect with, and the list continues for ways we can all make use of our time and resources during this pandemic shut-down.

When this has all leveled back out I predict we will see a unique divide in our population. The divide will be between those people who have worked to fill their time productively and those who have lost this time due to being consumed by factors outside of their own control. I encourage you to pursue the former and make the most you can of this unique time. Peace.

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