Memetic Profiles

Memes are cultural practices that can be acquired by imitation. Memetic profiles are systems of competing memes that are constructed cooperatively by a memeticist and a master practitioner of some human endeavor. Their goal is to point to the wisdom that the masters have acquired through their decades of focus on the activity. People less experienced in the activity can use profiles to acquire a deeper appreciation of the results or even to plan their own deepening relationship with the activity.

In the memetics profile project, participants are self-identified masters of their field who are interviewed by David Dirlam. So far, our experience has been that masters provide greatly enriched systems of memes compared with people of lesser experience.


The interview begins by asking our volunteer masters to imagine others they have known in their field who have one of four levels of experience:

  • Beginners agree to try an activity but make no long-term commitment to it
  • Novices have commitment but are deficient in training or experience (and usually are well aware of their deficiencies).
  • Journeymen are usually deriving at least part of their income from the activity (alternative sources of income sometimes preclude an interest in remuneration on the part of people who have become quite adept at an activity).
  • Masters contribute to the activity by writing about it, leaving behind collectable artifacts, or supervising, educating or acting as models for others.

Next, our volunteer masters are asked to think of as many differences between the people representing the four levels of experience as they can. The idea is not to create the definitive last word on the topic, but to uncover the concepts or impressions that have been most practiced or most vividly remembered by the respondent. Interview notes are turned into a profile and sent to the volunteer to correct any misconceptions. The entire process is somewhere between the open-endedness of a Studs Terkel interview and the structured interview of psychological research. Applying a powerful structuring tool after the interview results in less interviewer bias combined with a deeper conception of the activity than researchers who are not masters of it could create. The end-result reveals what the masters think most useful to tell others about their activities.

An understanding of memetic development requires more than identifying the memes. We need also to know the life-cycles of the memes. What starts them? How fast do they grow? What resources do they require? And what is the strength of the competing memes (those in the same dimension)? It is too early to begin estimating the life-cycles of the memes identified by the masters we encounter. But as more profiles are collected, comparisons should become productive. It was surprising, for example, to see that not only do watercolor painting and singing both involve whole-body activity at the master level, but also that all three of the masters interviewed before the initial posting of this page spontaneously mentioned the goal of uplifting both themselves and their communities. It will be interesting to see if this meme continues to crop up in some form in most masters.

When you read a memetic profile, remember that all levels are valuable. Even masters often dip down into their experience as beginners to discover fresh starts. Each row in a profile of an activity is a dimension of the activity. Any level of one dimension can be combined with any level of another dimension. This makes an enormous number of possible combinations. For example, there are more than a million possible combinations of the ten dimensions in our journalists’ profile. All the masters we have interviewed so far have an intuitive understanding that unusual combinations often results in creative outcomes. One important value of the profiles is that their highly condensed overview of decades of experience helps to reveal these opportunities for creativity.