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Is The Zombie Apocalypse Our Disaster Preparedness Meme?
April 01, 2013
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The blog I posted about Sticky Messages generated lots of great comments about disaster messaging and got me to thinking about a different kind of messaging: memes.

The term meme was coined by a British biologist, Richard Dawkins, using evolutionary theory to explain how ideas exist, change, live and die. He compared the life of a meme to biological evolution; the meme adapting and passing traits (ideas and models) to succeeding generations, which helped it endure – or not –  throughout time.

The concept was co-opted in the 90’s by the memetics movement, which immediately split into opposing camps about how to use them and the concept has since mutated into a staple of the internet – thereby proving Dawkins’ theory correct.

Sticky messages vs meme?  A sticky message is a building block of a meme: short, not very mutable. A meme is contagious and evolves over time as it passes from one person to the next. (Like the flu.) Sticky messages are picked up and discarded by the meme as it evolves, like pieces of DNA.

A meme can be a (hopefully) short-lived fad like Gangnam Style, or a ritual, like St. Patrick’s Day which went from a religious holiday to an ethnic celebration to an excuse to drink green beer.

A meme can also be sticky – in fact, the stickiness factor is the key to spreading a meme. And what is more sticky and meme-like than zombies? Zombies have evolved from a religious figure in an African religion to a literary creature then into movies, TV series and pop culture and, finally, (maybe) into a symbol for disaster preparedness.

That latest evolution for zombies happened back in October of 2009 at the University of Florida at Gainsville, when Doug Johnson, the assistant director for Learning Services, created a sticky meme.  He wrote an exercise plan about a Zombie Apocalypse as part of their H1N1 planning and posted it on the university web site. 

I remember how clever I thought the whole idea was, but before I could get a copy, the UF Chief Information Officer had it taken down because of the national media attention. It was reposted 14 days later. If you failed to get a copy then, you can get one now from the UF library.

Its real popularity, and what distinguishes it as a disaster preparedness meme, was a blog posted on May 16, 2011 by the Director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response for the CDC, Rear Admiral Ali S. Khan, titled Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse. The resulting traffic crashed the CDC website. The tweet had in excess of 1.2 million followers. Here is a snippet from the blog:

The rise of zombies in pop culture has given credence to the idea that a zombie apocalypse could happen. In such a scenario zombies would take over entire countries, roaming city streets eating anything living that got in their way. The proliferation of this idea has led many people to wonder “How do I prepare for a zombie apocalypse?”

Who is going to argue with the CDC?  If they could use zombies in disaster preparedness – so could Kansas and Ohio and Delaware and Maine and … DHS at the Halo Counterterrorism summit in San Diego last October. Brad Barker, president of the security firm, Halo Corp, said: "No doubt when a zombie apocalypse occurs, it's going to be a federal incident, so we're making it happen.”

Earlier this month, a professor at Clemson University in South Carolina suggested that the obsession with zombies is (according to the TIME newsfeed) “part of a historical trend that mirrors a level of cultural dissatisfaction and economic upheaval.”

I’m not so sure about that.  Take a look at zombieHunters.org.  This is a seriously funny prepper website based on the ‘zombie’ theme some Emergency Managers are becoming so fond of, with tons of really great information, forums, events and connections – all things that could be incorporated into your programs.

So start thinking about how to spread the sticky messages we need to incorporate into this Disaster Preparedness meme: 

  • You’re on your own for at least three days.
  • Water, Shelter, Food.
  • Mutual aid is as far as you can walk in a day.
  • If you can’t carry it, you don’t need it. 
  • Brains are just not a high energy food.  (OK - this last one is for April Fool's Day.)




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