Is Eastwooding a selfish meme?

Yesterday evening, as I browsed Facebook and Twitter, I became aware of, and then part of, something strange. I had already heard something about Clint Eastwood’s debate with an empty chair at the US Republican convention on Thursday, which struck me as an odd thing to do, but living on the other side of the Atlantic, had not yet had a chance to watch it. When I did, I was initially saddened to see that one of my all-time favourite Hollywood tough guys might have overestimated his talent for comic oratory, although if better informed (or scripted) and perhaps twenty years younger, I’d like to think he might still have pulled it off.

Then I received a tweet asking, Is Eastwooding the Next Planking Internet Meme? linking to a number of photos of people apparently conversing with empty chairs. At this point a number of thoughts went through my mind:

  • I remember my teenage daughter trying to explain Planking to me, but not really getting it.
  • Is this really an equivalent Internet meme in the making? That’s kind of exciting.
  • Some of these photos are actually pretty funny – at least in a quirky American kind of way 🙂
  • Maybe I should retweet this.
  • Maybe I should create my own Eastwooding photo and post that too.
Of course, I wasn’t the only one to be entertaining such a sequence of thoughts. Within an hour or so, tens of thousands of others had uploaded photos or retweeted various links and commentary connected with the twitter hashtag #Eastwooding.

According to VentureBeat, the Twitter profile @InvisibleObama went from 0 to 20,000 followers in just 40 minutes. Twelve hours later, it had 50,000, soon after which the account was suspended, presumably because Twitter was having a hard time keep pace with the rush of new traffic generated. While the creator of this profile remains anonymous, he/she did give an amusing interview here.

But was it a meme?
The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his ground-breaking book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976 (back when Clint was doing what he did best, looking tough and spraying bullets as the Outlaw, Josey Wales). Like the somewhat emotive title of the book itself , Dawkins’ suggestion that certain cultural ideas can be thought of as self-replicating units – memes – effectively jumping from one human mind to another in a process similar to natural selection, was widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. Just as Dawkins never meant for a moment to suggest that our genes are capable of selfishness in any human sense, or that they inherently make us selfish, I don’t think he ever intended for memes to be regarded as anything more than a potentially useful concept to explain how certain cultural phenomena such as religion have been passed through generations with such persistence.

Leaving aside the debate as to whether memes can really exist in any sense other than the abstract, Wikipedia describes the term as follows

A meme ( /ˈmiːm/; meem)[1] is “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.”[2] A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.[3]

While Eastwooding is undoubtedly an idea which has spread very rapidly, or gone viral, to use the current Internet parlance, does it really represent a process of cultural evolution? I don’t think so. When I look at the underlying motivations for the ideas going through my head as described above, they were really no more than a feeble attempt to increase social capital by appearing “in” with the crowd. Perhaps I wanted my teenage daughter to think me cool for finally getting one of the latest Internet fads, or perhaps I just wanted to make a few of my friends laugh – something in which, judging by the comments received on the posting of my own Eastwooding photo, I largely succeeded – although this may have been more to do with the fact that the cowboy hat I donned for the pose apparently made me look more like Woody from Toy Story, than my hero, Clint Eastwood.

Maybe such ultimately selfish motivations are what drive all memes, or at least the more loosely defined Internet Memes, but unless Eastwooding persists for a number of years and mutates into other more  infectious forms, I personally think it would be better described as a passing fad rather than a meme.

At least I hope this is the case, for I would hate for the man who made 67 movies (many of them quite good), produced and directed at least three dozen more, won 4 Oscars, was elected mayor of his home town of Carmel in California, and somehow dammit, still looks cool at 82 years of age, to be best remembered for an ill-advised geriatric ramble on behalf of Fist-full-of-dollars-personified – Mitt Romney.


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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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