The Viral Pandemic of Facebook Memetics

1511316_10152134808693415_1229605590_n

A meme is an idea that is readily transmitted from person to person. But we humans are not perfect transmitters. While sometimes we repeat the idea exactly, often we change the meme, either unintentionally, or to embellish or improve it.

Take for example, the meme:
“No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, post this as your status for the rest of the day”.

In September of 2009, over 470,000 Facebook users posted this exact statement as their status update. At some point someone created a variant by prepending “thinks that” (which would follow the individual’s name, e.g., “Sam thinks that no one…”), which was copied 60,000 times. The third most popular variant inserted “We are only as strong as the weakest among us” in the middle. “The rest of the day” at one point (probably in the late evening hours) became “the next 24 hours”. Others abbreviated it to “24 hrs”, or extended it to “the rest of the week”.

Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 3.44.29 PM

In all, using anonymized data, we detected 121,605 different variants of this particular meme which appeared in 1.14 million status updates. One can connect these variants together, in a manner similar to constructing a phylogenetic tree to trace the lineage of a particular genetic sequence.

Even more interestingly, fitness of variants is not uniform across all parts of the social network, but can sometimes depend on the niche.

Screen Shot 2014-01-11 at 3.46.13 PM

[S]everal different parodies emerged, and by averaging the political leanings of those sharing a particular variant, we found the following: the original variant in support of Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) was propagated primarily by liberals, while those mentioning government and taxes slanted conservative.

Sci-fi variants were slightly liberal, alcohol-related ones slightly conservative, while opposition to cancer was uniform. Just as certain genetic mutations can be advantageous in specific environments, meme mutations can be propagated differentially if the variant matches the subpopulation’s beliefs or culture.

Via Facebook Data Science, or Information Evolution in Social Networks for the full PDF report

This entry was posted in Culture, Science by Heretic. Bookmark the permalink.

About Heretic

I design video games for a living, write fiction, political theory and poetry for personal amusement, and train regularly in Western European 16th century swordwork. On frequent occasion I have been known to hunt for and explore abandoned graveyards, train tunnels and other interesting places wherever I may find them, but there is absolutely no truth to the rumor that I am preparing to set off a zombie apocalypse. Nothing that will stand up in court, at least. I use paranthesis with distressing frequency, have a deep passion for history, anthropology and sociological theory, and really, really, really hate mayonnaise. But I wash my hands after the writing. Promise.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s