Social Networks and the
Theory of Memes
Current Issues in Web Technology
One of the key things about ‘free’ software products like
Facebook is their customer model.
You’re not the customer.
You’re the product.
In order to create self perpetuating virality, social networks must
capture the desire of individuals to be consumers and
producers of content.
Content is anything you put out there.
A status update
Social networks have a vested interest in ensuring the ease of
Facebook, Yahoo and Google all have ‘trend managers’.
The degree to which an idea ‘catches on’ amongst a population.
Those who are responsible for keeping track of just what content is
Viral content is self perpetuating.
It infects new groups (along the lines we discussed last weeks).
Those groups distribute it to groups farther afield.
Technology diffusion model from last week relevant here.
Propagation follows two models.
Linear propagation provides:
Exponential propagation provides:
Steady market penetration
Long term exposure
Memetic potential only available towards the end of propagation.
Very fast market penetration
Quick ‘burn out’
Memetic potential available instantly.
Memetic potential often expressed in follow-up ‘responses’.
The idea of a meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his
1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene’
In this book, he posits that certain kinds of ideas transfer
themselves between the minds of other individuals.
Now… youtube videos.
There is a field of scientific study around this now.
In this theory, ‘memes’ evolve through natural selection.
Memes must propagate or become extinct.
Although ideas are rarely ever lost forever.
‘A meme is an idea that behaves like a virus – that moves through a
population, taking hold in each person it infects’ – Malcolm Gladwell.
Memes vary through their expressions.
Changes in style or phrasing or aesthetics
Ideas are rarely a perfect copy.
Mutations of memes involve the introduction of new elements
that may significantly (or not) alter the basic composition of the
Ideas inherit from other ideas.
Ideas transmit themselves to other people.
Constitutional monarchy derives from absolute monarchy which
derives from despotism.
To give a horrendously simplified example.
The propagation of memes is based on the ‘infection ratio’ in the
Popular ideas are more memetic.
Memes also encounter ‘survival of the fittest’.
Bad ideas (we would hope) die out
Good ideas propagate.
Unfortunately, humans are not especially well wired to
determine ‘good’ ideas.
The ‘fitness’ of an idea is based on several factors:
‘Stickiness’ of the idea
Context in which it is encountered
Receptiveness of individual minds.
Bad ideas can propagate as easily as good ideas.
Stickiness is the thing that gives ‘oomph’ to a meme.
It defines the impact on the people who encounter it – a sticky
meme is one that gets stuck in your head.
Ideas that are sticky are ‘worth spreading’.
A catchy tune
A particularly pithy one liner
A nagging doubt
They remain active in your mind, which increases the chances that
you will mention them to others.
It’s difficult to precisely enumerate what makes a meme sticky.
Working in groups of 3-4:
List ten to fifteen significant ‘memes’ you have encountered as a
group in the past year.
Make a list of the ones you have personally encountered well
enough to recognise.
From the internet:
Check to see how your experience matches ‘the internet’
They don’t have to be ‘internet memes’
Knowyourmeme.com is a useful database of memetic
Report back to the rest of us.
How do Memes Spread
Dawkins provided a theory of ‘replicators’ to help define this.
Memes don’t need to last forever in the mind of an individual.
They just need to last long enough to propagate.
An idea must be transmitted to a certain minimum number of
people to ensure viability.
An idea must retain a certain amount of ‘truthiness’ in its
replications for it to propagate as a measurable unit.
In addition to this, we can add the importance of conditioning.
Conditioning/Repetition is a powerful process for creating
If something is repeated often enough, we recognise it when
we see it.
It takes many repetitions to build this kind of awareness.
It’s how advertising works, for the most part.
This process of repetition is why it’s known as conditioning.
Enough repetitions can instil a ‘I recognise that, so I will buy
into it’ reflex in the mind.
An important technique is to use a favourable connotation to
deliver a ‘secret’ message.
Bundling a great song in an advertising campaign.
Making a funny advert that makes people laugh.
Certain things work to bypass many of our conscious defences:
Thus, the high-pitched hysterical tone in many 24-hour news
Thus, the pairing of sex with… well, pretty much anything.
Gets deep into our caveman/cavewoman brains.
The most memetic ideas catch us at the beginning.
A good meme follows the same basic patterns as a good story.
A ‘Oh wow did you see that’ moment
‘What’s going to happen next’ moment
It hooks you at the start
It tells you something that stays with you
It drives you to tell other people
Stories are in fact one of the purest memetic forms.
Their power to convey messages is second to none.
Even NASA use them for teaching purposes.
Viral ideas work within a ‘marketplace of ideas’.
Creating a viral is not a scientific process.
If it was, nobody would ever need to pay an advertiser ever again.
It’s highly contextual.
People have limited attention.
Survival of the fittest.
Things will work in one society that won’t work in another.
Certain kinds of ideas will work well together when similar ideas
However, there are some basic steps that you can bear in
Six Simple Principles of Viral Marketing:
Give away something valuable.
‘Free’ is a word of incredible power.
Provide effortless transfer.
Complicated messages are hard to convey, and hard to get people
Scales easily from small to very large.
You need to be able to keep up with demand.
C.f. Slashdot effect, or Penny Arcade’s ‘wanged’
Exploits common motivations and behaviours.
Utilizes existing communication networks.
The desire to be cool.
Both Samsung and Apple try to do this.
The need to ‘belong’
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
There is no point pitching ‘aspiration’ to a group worrying for their
Human networks as well as social networks.
Takes advantage of others’ resources
Virality can propagate through news coverage as well as through social
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Groups of 3-4 again.
Pick the first thing from one of your ‘recommended items’ lists from
Work together to find a way to ‘package it’
Hierarchy of needs
Create whatever kind of presentation you like.
A short video
An advertising pitch.
Be prepared to show the rest of the class!
Why do I need to know this?
‘Why is any of this relevant to me’ is a fair question.
We all live in an incredibly noisy world.
It’s very hard to get the message out now.
If you work for a large company, they will worry about getting
people to enjoy the fruits of your labour.
If you don’t, you need to take a more holistic view.
Everyone has to be something of a salesperson.
It is also ‘self defence’ against the power of harmful memetics.
Knowledge is power.
Ideas can be thought of as propagating along the same lines as
This is known as memetic theory.
Understanding how memes are packaged is an important part in
knowing how to create them.
To create the conditions for a meme, we need something that is:
Transmitted in a receptive context.
Virality is key to understanding how much of what happens in the
computing world happens.