Mr. E.C. Mendenhall has built a robo-Tumblr called Meme Pool to experiment with the evolution of ideas. Just as a gene pool is the collection of all biological expressions (genes) in a population, a meme pool is the pool of memes, or transmittable ideas. Mendenhall’s Meme Pool draws on Tumblr’s vast reservoir of image memes, picks the two fittest every day, mates them and posts their offspring.
There’s no relation to memepool, the once-great mini-blog of handpicked Internet goodies. That one hasn’t evolved since 2008. But armed with a little bit of Python and the surging population of Tumblr, Mendenhall will try to give the primordial ooze of the Web a new life of its own.
Memes vs. Genes
“Evolution creates amazing and complex things from just three simple rules: selection, replication, and variation,” Mendenhall writes. We owe the amazing diversity of biological life to the application of these simple rules to enormous and complex gene pools over hundreds of millions of years.
Meme Pool has slightly more humble ambitions at the still-formidable scale of the human-driven Web. The genomes of Tumblr memes are much simpler than those of plants and animals. Meme Pool treats Tumblr posts’ tags as alleles, each describing the phenotype, which is the image itself. The fitness of a Tumblr meme is determined by how many likes and reblogs it gets.
The Meme Pool
Meme Pool’s population contains 20 posts at a time. Mendenhall says that gives posts a lifespan about a week “before they die of old age.” Every day, the two fittest memes get to mate and create a child post. Meme Pool takes a random combination of the parents’ tags and searches Flickr for interesting photos that match. When there’s no good match for both combinations, Meme Pool uses a strategy sort of like nature’s solution:
“Sometimes there’s no match for both tags (e.g. ‘Economics’ and ‘Lawn Darts’). In that case, the algorithm looks for images with either tag. This is a little bit like dominant and recessive traits: sometimes one tag will determine the entire phenotype. If there’s no image for either tag, the post dies out immediately.”
Without spontaneous generation, major evolutionary leaps might never happen. Meme Pool’s random mutation comes from its Tumblr followers. Liking and reblogging posts from Meme Pool increases their fitness, making them more likely to survive and reproduce. Meme Pool also randomly reblogs one post from a follower per day, introducing its genes to the population. Anyone can also submit their own images to the Meme Pool to shake things up.
Health & Fitness
Meme Pool only launched yesterday (with a nice painting of the young Charles Darwin), and it’s still fleshing out its population. It has had six generational updates so far as it approaches 20 memes, and biology still features heavily. It also contains some other historical figures and a few weird outliers, just like any healthy population.
There’s a strong relationship in the phenotypes of some members of the first generation. The fly species Drosophilia is thriving in Meme Pool, which isn’t surprising, since its often used as a model for scientists studying genetics. With Darwin himself as an ancestor, you can see the family resemblance.
Follow Meme Pool on Tumblr to participate in the experiment and shape memes on the Web for generations to come.