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A Quantitative Study of How Memes Spread 219

rememberclifford writes "A survey of about 3,000 people who were tagged in a '25 Random Things About Me' note on Facebook found that memes spread through social networks in a remarkably similar way as diseases do. A biologist who looked at the data says that '"25 Things" authors can be seen as "contagious" under what's known as a "susceptible-infected-recovered" model for the spread of disease,' with a propagation factor of 0.27 in this case. But like an infection, the whole thing died out as quickly as it exploded once the number of 'victims' — people who were willing to write 25 things about themselves — was depleted." The '25 Things' meme was at least as annoying as a light flu.
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A Quantitative Study of How Memes Spread

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 12, 2009 @09:50AM (#26826515)

    over 9,000.

  • by fprintf ( 82740 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @09:51AM (#26826533) Journal

    I think the Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell explained how this happens well. He said there are three rules for this kind of spreading of fads... the law of the few, stickiness factor and the power of context.

    I won't repeat it all, however it seems to me that the best memes have a few central people, with lots of friends, who spread it around. Malcolm spends a great deal of time giving examples of how fads and trends all start by getting to one of these well connected communicators. His first example is of Paul Revere.

  • Annoying? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    I don't feel this was particularly annoying. I'm "friends" with quite a few people I don't know, and reading people's seems a pretty decent way of quickly getting to know someone, and what they're like. Similar to those "Where would you be right now if you had the choice" profiles on dating sites.
    • by Nursie ( 632944 )

      "Similar to those "Where would you be right now if you had the choice" profiles on dating sites."

      Is the next question "And why aren't you there? You only get one life you know".
      People self limit in these things in such a weird way.

    • It could be a lot worse. I got rick-rolled yesterday. Hadn't happened in so long that I clicked a link without looking at where it was going first.
    • by Reapman ( 740286 )

      I agree.. I thought it was something fun to do, I didn't feel a lot of pressure like I had to do this or someones dog somewhere would die or something. Normally I ignore these but eh.. not like I put anything up there that I wouldn't mind any of my friends knowing.

      Granted I also didn't send it out to a "full" 25. Just people i thought might be interested in it.

      Frankly although I found it very interesting I think this article went a little TOO indepth, but I imagine if your into marketing it might be usefu

  • by txoof ( 553270 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @09:53AM (#26826557) Homepage

    The "25 Things" meme reminded me of the chain emails that were ever so popular in the early to mid 90s. I wonder how the "rate of infection" on face book compares to a similar meme delivered by email. Specifically, I wonder if the public nature of "25 Things" invitations on facebook enhance its ability to be transmitted from one victim to another. Email is generally read in a very private way, where facebook invitations happen in front of your entire (online) social network.

    Any thoughts on this?

    • by bsDaemon ( 87307 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @11:07AM (#26827605)

      I got tagged to write a "25 thing" note fairly late in the game. I was mostly interested in seeing if I would get tagged at all. Once I did though, I was able to resist the urge to actually post it.

      There's enough crap about me on FB already if anyone is actually interested.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Neko-kun ( 750955 )
      So would you say the Facebook spread is like the flu while email is like VD?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I would say not. The state of Texas believed Barrack Obama is a Muslim at a rate double the rest of the country (~20% vs ~10%). The Texans I know were getting it spread exclusively through e-mail. The e-mail vector is at least as "contagious" as Facebook, if not more so. More people have e-mail accounts than Facebook accounts. Many people have multiple e-mail accounts and no Facebook account, including me.

      (Incidentally, the Texans I know no longer believe Barrack Obama is a Muslim, solely on the basis

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        Incidentally, the Texans I know no longer believe Barrack Obama is a Muslim, solely on the basis that he used his left hand to sign his inauguration papers.

        But doesn't that make him Satanic? I don't get it.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          Apparently Satanic is better than Muslim, to them. Just like a gay politician is better than an atheist politician.

          Don't try to analyze it. It will just make your head explode.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I always suspected there was something infectious about facebook..

    It seems to follow the herpes model too. Once you got it. It's forever!

  • I got tagged by about three friends who were not in contact with each other. A nice demonstration for the Small World hypothesis.

  • Easy. (Score:5, Funny)

    by morgan_greywolf ( 835522 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @09:58AM (#26826619) Homepage Journal

    1. Someone posts something that's funny because it involves shared cultural reference and experience for that community.
    2. It gets modded up +5 funny.
    3. ???
    4. Profit!

  • It's a trap!

  • were those of us who kept having those stupid "25 things" posts pop up on our facebook home page from people we hardly know...
    • ...are the pseudo-journalists/analysts still writing stories using the word "meme."

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by jeffasselin ( 566598 )

        Memes are a sociological phenomenon, and are studied seriously by sociologists.

        Not that I think sociology is a proper science, mind you, but it's still something that should be and has been studied seriously.

      • by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @10:29AM (#26826951) Journal

        ... are the dolts who still repeat something that sounded cool or smart when it was new, but in the meantime it's just retarded and offtopic. It's the people who, many years later, still think there's something clever or even shocking about a rickrolling (it was at least a pun when someone turned "duckrolling" into "rickrolling", but I doubt that most of the retards still doing it these days even know that), or even about the ever popular goatse link (we've all seen it already, there's hardly any shock value left in it), or talking in wikipedia tags ("[citation needed]" was witty when someone first spouted it, but in the meantime it just says "I'm too retarded to talk in complete sentences _or_ come up with an original witticism of my own"), or pretty much 99% of the phrases being recirculated. There's nothing witty, original, funny or shocking about being the millionth mindless clone using someone else's joke or wisecrack any more, but some people just can't seem to recover anyway.

        Like in the infecection analogy, the healthy minds have dealt with it and moved on. The ones with a broken immune system (except in this case it's the IQ;) are still stuck with it after years, and still icapable of doing much more than spew more copies of the virus.

        Honestly, I find these even more pityful than a journalist writing about memes once and then moving on.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward


        • by corbettw ( 214229 ) <corbettw@ y a h o o . com> on Thursday February 12, 2009 @11:40AM (#26828177) Journal

          Lighten up, Francis. Witty catchphrases and bon mots have always found a way to enter the language; some die out, some continue for centuries or even millennia. After all, there's nothing new under the sun, and a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

          Yes, some turn into tired cliches, and I agree with you that rickrolling needs to die. But if you disallowed people from using popculture catch phrases years after they were originally cool, you'd gut out about half of the language (and inadvertently cancel Family Guy).

        • by gsslay ( 807818 )

          ... are the dolts who still repeat something that sounded cool or smart when it was new, but in the meantime it's just retarded and offtopic.

          You mean like people who call things and people they don't like "retarded". Yeah. That bugs me too. I wish people would stop saying that. It's no longer smart or cool.

          • by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @02:19PM (#26830665) Journal

            No, I genuinely mean retarded. It's not a case of "I don't like them", it's a case of "most of the time it doesn't even make sense, nor make them look as smart as they seem to think." Some 90% of the uses of memes don't actually even have any meaning, and certainly don't convey any information in the context they're used.

            E.g., a decade later all the "first post" posts stopped being new, witty or funny, and basically just say "I'm a troll adding noise to the signal, and can't even think of anything original either." There are _very_ few instances where they're on topic. (E.g., maybe a discussion about such posts.) Far from being a claim to being witty or funny, it's basically a claim of being a dumb and unimaginative troll. Why _would_ someone who's not retarded actually want to make that claim in public?

            E.g., in Soviet Russia. The original joke was something like, "in the USA you find a party on a Saturday night, in Soviet Russia the party finds you." It was a clever word-play on the two meanings of the word "party". That was actually the funny part: that switching the meanings too, not just the word around. Many years later, enter the common Slashdot troll. He got the word switching right, but not the part where it's actually a pun or otherwise witty or funny. So what are they trying to prove there? That they have about enough brain to switch words around, but not enough to do the joke right, or even understand what the joke was? I.e., about as much as a parrot?

            And again, in which contexts is it even remotely relevant? I'll cut it a lot of slack in threads which actually do mention the USSR or Russia, like the orbital collision earlier, even if they manage to get it executed the usual way that misses the whole joke. But otherwise it's just some off-topic noise that's not even funny or witty. Yay, someone butted in a topic about server clusters, to post an "in Soviet Russia computers cluster you." That's so funny without the actual word-play, and he's so smart and witty. Not.

            E.g., I won't complain about our AC friend for the "tl;dr" meme in this thread, and would probably even mod him funny myself, because it _is_ a thread about memes. Fair enough. He found an overused meme to post in a thread about overused memes. That's cool.

            But it's also popping up all over the place, in all threads, and sometimes to messages 3-4 sentences long. What clever insight is it supposed to impart there? Because from where I stand, it just makes the claim, "hey, look at me! I'm not here to actually read! I'm here to skip directly to trolling! And I'm too stupid to understand that nobody asked _me_ to read it anyway, or to use the back button!" It's something that might make sense on something that you're _supposed_ to read, like a memo at work, but just proves lack of elementary intelligence on a forum where nobody gives a rat's arse about who reads exactly which message. That a completely random John Doe found a random message too long for his broken attention span, is simply a non-issue and non-information.

            Even as a trolling devices go, it seems to me like a pretty retarded one. It doesn't even say much about the message or poster it's answering to, but just about the one who posted it. As such, it lacks even much of an annoyance value or baiting value. So some guy just confessed that he's here just to troll and/or can't read more than a paragraph. So what? Should I send him a coupon for ADHD treatement, or what?


            I'm not talking about a matter of subjective tastes, but about what I consider genuinely a failure of logic and/or intelligence.

            • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

              by ultranova ( 717540 )

              No, I genuinely mean retarded. It's not a case of "I don't like them", it's a case of "most of the time it doesn't even make sense, nor make them look as smart as they seem to think." Some 90% of the uses of memes don't actually even have any meaning, and certainly don't convey any information in the context they're used.

              "Retarded" means "below normal development for its age". Given that, saying that 90% of uses of memes is retarded is a contradiction in terms. The majority of people cannot be retarded, yo

              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by Moraelin ( 679338 )

                "Retarded" means "below normal development for its age". Given that, saying that 90% of uses of memes is retarded is a contradiction in terms. The majority of people cannot be retarded, you insensitive clod, not even in Soviet Russia, even if the overlords there arguably were.

                I think I understand your point, but I don't really see a problem. I don't think you can make a case that the whole population just mindlessly parrots memes to impress, which is kinda needed for that 90% to translate into 90% of the po

        • by Haoie ( 1277294 )

          You're so right.

          Yesterday mildly amusing - Today grating and immature.

          Like 99% of anything on the net.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by xPsi ( 851544 ) *
          Be advised you are following the same meme cliche cycle by complaining about it. For every annoying decaying, witless in-joke past its glory days, there's someone who has a tired argument to remind us how annoying, witless, and cliche the in-joke really is. And similarly, there's someone like me who will boorishly complain about the complaining about it. And so on. Culture's one big recursive clicheplex. I don't think we can help it.
  • The word memes looks alot like herpes. I've learned alot from this article, like not to skim the slashdot headlines.
  • by onion2k ( 203094 ) * on Thursday February 12, 2009 @10:02AM (#26826661) Homepage

    Males will only have filled it in and passed it on if it was sent to them by a girl they want to sleep with, so it's more like some sort of sexually transmitted infection than flu.

  • Was? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by meringuoid ( 568297 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @10:02AM (#26826663)
    It's just hit here. I've had two copies of it in the last 24 hours, one of which was from someone who really should know better, and I'm expecting a swarm.

    That's more of a chain letter, though; a meme that explicitly instructs that it be copied onward. That's nothing new, we've had chain letters for a hundred years or more, and religions for millennia. That's cheating. I'd be interested in seeing a study of the spread of a more passive meme, of which I'm sure there are over 9000 examples, at least in Soviet Russia. How do ideas spread among a population organically, without this lame 'now forward to all your friends' thing? Something along the lines of Dawkins' original study of citations of a scientific paper, and how they increase slowly as the meme spreads and then suddenly increase rapidly after some critical point. The same could be done with internet memes: perhaps an index of how many non-/b/tards are using a meme as an indicator of its popularity. Or indeed with fashion trends; I understand that some marketing firms have been known to identify the alpha child in a given playground and straight-out bribe him to wear their brands...

    • You hit the nail on the head. This is the study of the forced, artificial spread of a meme - someone Tried to start it. That's interesting, but as you say, the accidental spread of a meme is far moreso. Besides just being interesting in its own right, advertisers would love to know how it works so that they can utilize the technique in astroturfing.

      • You hit the nail on the head. This is the study of the forced, artificial spread of a meme - someone Tried to start it.

        I think the interesting bit is that someone started it, it died, it mutated, and it flourished.

  • Real question... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Fez ( 468752 ) *

    The real question remains unanswered: Just how do you pronounce "meme"?

    The dictionary says "meem", but I hear "may-may" and "me-me" often.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Since when is Meme the new word for Chain Letter?

    • Good insightful point: to confuse the two, e.g. by generalising the claims made from chain letters to memes in a general sense, would be a very stupid error. On the other hand, TFA does actually try to cast the evolution of the chain letter in a biological light, so I think their use of the term is defensible.

      On the other other hand, one of the key weaknesses of the meme idea has always been that there's no such thing as parsimony, so biological parallels are always going to be inexact. On the other other o

  • Memes and Disease (Score:5, Insightful)

    by salesgeek ( 263995 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @10:08AM (#26826707) Homepage

    This just in: a method of studying the spread of ideas that attempts to use viral disease as it's model finds that ideas spread like viral disease.

  • by johannesg ( 664142 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @10:08AM (#26826709)

    Memes can turn into a serious problem for society. Fortunately our future Martian overlords know just how to deal with it, as witnessed here []. This is why it is imperative that we visit Mars and set up colonies there...

  • by snarfies ( 115214 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @10:11AM (#26826747) Homepage

    Rules 1 and 2, brothers.

  • Making those graphs into Flash animations provided zero useful information, as is typical for flash snippets.

    I want to find "patient zero" for the idea that animating the drawing of a static graph was cool, and go back in time and force-feed him a copy of "The Visual Display of Qualitative Information" until he's coughing up statistics.

  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Thursday February 12, 2009 @10:29AM (#26826957) Journal

    I thought that by ignoring all that crap I was being my usual antisocial self. But it turns out, I'm actually like a naturally immune member of the population.

    • Whereas I was "tagged" by someone who was genuinely interested in my answers. So I filled out the meme as a favor to him and declined to "tag" anyone else, much the way I'll occasionally read chain mail from relatives but I never pass it along.

      So what's the medical opposite of a Typhoid Mary []?

      • An immune non-carrier.

        Typically this presents as one of two phenomenons:

        "Contact Immunity" where an individual is immune, and their immunity is contagious. Usually this is a response to a vaccination. The weakened strain of the vaccination is still contagious, and so spreads through the population stopping the spread of the original disease.

        Or so called "Herd Immunity" where an immune population is large enough to block transmission vectors between non-immune members. Person A gets sick, but dies/gets bette

        • Wrong opposite. He's looking for the term for someone who gets the disease, becomes symptomatic and recovers, but is not at any time contagious. I don't know that there is such a term.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 12, 2009 @10:30AM (#26826979)

    How is memme formed?

  • Isn't memetics dead, or at least no longer of interest? I thought the main journal had shut down and Susan Blackmore et al had moved on.

  • memes don't force people to actually write something.

    memes are totally passive. you click a link and view information. then maybe you click another link to propagate it.

    This doesn't take into account so-called super-spreaders. Those who have the potential to propagate to hundreds of thousands of people just by their status.

  • I don't think anyone ever could have guessed in a billion years that contagion models could be applied to internet memes. And heaven forbid someone spend some time examining their life and writing about it in an entertaining way instead of throwing sheep at all their friends.
  • Take a look at this video [] from the it crowd...
  • I thought that memes were ideas that spread virally. For example, "The world trade centers were brought down by the United States government as a false flag operation." would be a meme. On the other hand, a survey on Facebook isn't really a meme... is it?
  • I think for a lot of my "friends", 25 Things was the first participatory internet meme they have been exposed to, at least on that kind of scale. (Aside from the Facebook meta-meme, of course.) I get the impression that many non-geek Facebook members haven't really been part of an online community in any meaningful way before (I'm 38, so this is a Gen-X thing.)

    I certainly hope that they aren't quite so susceptible to the next meme that comes along, although I think some of them genuinely enjoyed it.

Thus spake the master programmer: "Time for you to leave." -- Geoffrey James, "The Tao of Programming"