The Half-Life of Creativity

When was the last time you saw a meme? Just before you started reading this entry? An hour ago? A day ago? Chances are you saw the meme on a platform and didn’t even notice it was one! That’s characteristic of the proliferation of Internet memes today – from meme generators to the Tournament of Memes, this cultural product has infiltrated cyberspace to a large extent–so much so that Indiana University is spending about a million dollars to understand how memes work and how they spread. However, what memes are or how they represent popular culture isn’t the concern here; instead, how a meme has come to represent a contemporary and instantaneous form of creative output is.

Richard Dawkins introduced the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, and spoke of the Internet meme in 2013, suggesting that these were hijacked ideas that were deliberately altered by human creativity. Internet memes have succeeded in expanding the definition of traditional creative output. No longer is the tag of “creative” restricted to great artworks or verbose texts or complex symphonies; today, you or I can create and consume a creative meme. The Internet has afforded an opportunity for individuals to be creative within a limited time, expending low effort, with little to no raw materials, and to receive immediate feedback on their creative output.

Consider a comparison between creative output production in the Renaissance and the Internet age. While the sheer number of creative outcomes today has increased by a staggering extent, the memorability of “classic” creative products remains high. This is not to say that Internet memes are lower in creative quality, but implies that due to their rapidly increasing number, the likelihood of remembering particular memes (read: creative products) is lower. Another comparison may be on the basis of collaboration with other creators. Creativity flourishes in context and the Internet has made it significantly easier to collaborate and generate creative micro-products, like memes. Further, the production of memes today is crowdsourced to an extent unimaginable in past generations–individuals can contribute to the growing pool of digital cultural products and receive appreciation or criticism for their creativity by other members who are producing or consuming such products.

Thus, the modern half-life of creativity has reduced to the blink of an eye. Well, not that short, but much shorter than earlier. For instance, the creative value attributed to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy sustains a high standing even today. However, would a similar standing be attributed to the following centuries later?

Probably not. But does that mean the meme isn’t creative? Probably not as well. The half-life of creativity is the time taken for a creative product to reduce in novelty, newness, usefulness, and other attributes that make a product creative. Internet memes are being produced at a time when attention spans are precipitously reducing and when environmental and contextual factors (the press in creativity) are enabling and highly supportive of mass-produced creative output. Meme-ing is a serious venture for netizens and academics alike–from confirming the existence of popular memes to analyzing how meme punchlines come to be from a linguistic point of view. Further, memes may be the most voluminous account of creativity generated by millions of individuals in a single generation, making them a repository of cultural products for future generations.

What does this mean for the future of creativity? The half-life of creativity has reduced, but only in this context. Art, music, science, and literature continue to be displays of traditional creativity, at times taking painstakingly long to produce and be attributed the “creative” tag. However, Internet memes have transformed the dissemination and appreciation of creative products, thereby altering the connectivity of not only creators, but also of creations. In a hyper-connected online space, memes cater to abbreviated cognitive faculties of humor appreciation and more simply, thought. While reducing the half-life of creativity through continuous replacement of original products, memes have increased the sheer number of original output as well. And this deserves applause.

Hansika Kapoor