Memecodes: Survival of the Fittest Web Pages


Memecodes are web pages with randomly created texts which are born and die over the course of time. How is that possible? By basing those pages on the rules of evolution: the more often a page is found and clicked on in Google – the more popular it is – the more offspring it produces.

The title Memecodes is a word play on Richard Dawkins memes from his book "The Selfish Gene"1. In it, he wrote:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

I created this experiment in early 2004 to watch it grow, with some interesting results. Here's how it worked in detail. First, based upon a dictionary of words, pages with random texts were created. To make sure the texts looked rather natural, words like "the" or "and" as well as punctuation were added. The resulting pages contained Jabberwockyish2 paragraphs such as this one:

Cognac? Is sloth is waist is declare of bramble flood in of stoical. Footman... Hesitancy a for attention flabby wanton and calculate vtol cyclamate that paprika feign the aline fourth qualifications of in. Thatch, Saccharin hansom rationale in dine numbers.

This page – or set of "genes" – was unique in the whole set of pages which made up the "ecosystem." Now there was a possibility certain sentences or fragments of sentences made sense. One sentence, for example, contained the phrase "corpulent pigeons," which someone did indeed search for in Google. As soon as that happened and the searcher clicked on the Memecodes result, this particular page created offspring – it "mated" with the searcher, if you will. The offspring of any page was the same page slightly mutated by randomly replacing some of its words. This way, maybe "corpulent pigeons" became "corpulent pink pigeons" (surely that would have had the chance to be an even more successful gene) or it could turn into "corpulent tower pigeons" (and face certain death over time, because rarely do people search for such a thing!).

How did pages die then? There was a page population limit of a little over 2,000 pages. Whenever a new page was born, the oldest page would be removed (the link from the front-page of the Memecodes experiment pointing to this page would be removed). If a page didn't manage to create offspring until then, its genes were unsuccessful in surviving and would therefore not be continued.

Other genes (random texts) would be more successful, though. And some of the successful pages would become even more successful in turn, possibly finding a natural search niche to settle into: they lured more and more searchers to find them by creating more and more "natural language." One day, the pages might even turn into Shakespeare, and it wouldn't need infinite monkeys to pull it off! Or rather, that was my hope. But evolution takes a lot of time to show results, and after little more than a year, I stopped the experiment. Until then, however, a lot of people found their way onto the site and thus produced offspring. All in all, a walloping 10,022 pages were born (about 2,500 of those seed pages created automatically in the beginning), with some Memecodes in their 5th generation.

Some of the popular sentences were truly strange, like "feel the wrath of salivating mushroom eating frog aliens with microwave ovens," or the more down-to-earth "seagull sandwich." Other sentences were circling around the word "torrent," because "Torrents" had started to become a popular way to download video and other files on the web. The only clearly recognizable pattern in successful genes, however, were exotic words and word combinations I can't even print here for reasons you might be able to guess: they were all about "adult" topics. Then again, I guess that's nature!

End Notes

1. Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. (www.55fun.com/3.1)

2. Jabberwocky is the title of a nonsensical poem from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1872). It starts off with "Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe." (www.55fun.com/3.2)