Mapping the Life Cycle of 
the Michael Brown Meme 
Weekly Research Report for August 20, 2014 
Prepared by: 
Joe Brewer 
C...
Cultural Change as Dynamic Pattern Formation 
This week I want to look at the cultural patterns that gave rise to a major ...
A Lesson From Evolutionary Biology - Punctuated Equilibrium 
The dynamic evolution of memes was very rapid. In a short amo...
3. A "saturation stage" where it became common talk, especially among urban liberals and 
members of historically marginal...
At this point in time, the process continues to unfold around larger themes (like those mentioned at 
the beginning of thi...
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Mapping the Life Cycle of the Michael Brown Meme

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The viral spread of information about police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri followed a distinct set of phases from incubation through a rapid rise in significance, increasing polarization, a battle of internet memes, and into a new conversational landscape.

In this study, I explored the life cycle of the memes around Michael Brown and Ferguson to show how campaigners and communicators can visualize the spreading process as a kind of "pattern formation" that grows and crescendoes in distinct steps.

Hopefully this will be helpful for you in your social change efforts!

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Mapping the Life Cycle of the Michael Brown Meme

  1. 1. Mapping the Life Cycle of the Michael Brown Meme Weekly Research Report for August 20, 2014 Prepared by: Joe Brewer Culture Designer Change Strategist for Humanity T 206.914.8927 joe@culture2inc.com http://www.changestrategistforhumanity.com
  2. 2. Cultural Change as Dynamic Pattern Formation This week I want to look at the cultural patterns that gave rise to a major pushback against militarization and police brutality in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri in the United States. As I write these words to the page, my Facebook feed is filled with headlines like The American War Zone, Ferguson Cops Busted: New Video Seems to Show Brown Paying for Cigarillos, and Weapons Fired in Ferguson Come From Companies Supplying Israel, Bahrain, and Egypt. These were literally grabbed in order from the top of my newsfeed in the last two minutes. It is really buzzing as a topic right now! Some of you may know that I studied the way patterns arise in dynamic systems during my time in grad school. Specifically, I explored the way that clouds in the atmosphere go through distinct stages of development as they form, exchange energy with their environment, and later dissipate and go away. It was this understanding of pattern formation that has informed all that I do with frame semantics, the spread of ideas, and adoption of novel social behaviors. What I want to do in this report is explore the “stages of development” for the memes going around on the internet about Ferguson, Missouri and Michael Brown. A brief background in case you are unfamiliar with the situation on the ground (taken from this Wikipedia entry): The shooting of Michael Brown occurred on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson Missouri, United States, a suburb of St. Louis. Brown, an 18-year-old male, died after being shot at least six times by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, 28. Brown was unarmed and had no criminal record. According to Ferguson police, Brown was a suspect in a robbery allegedly committed minutes before the shooting, although the initial contact between Wilson and Brown was unrelated to the alleged robbery. Wilson had served four years with the Ferguson Police Department after serving two years with another local police department. He had no disciplinary history. Embedded in a context of intense racial tension, this event prompted an explosive response. Sympathizers to the victims of police brutality joined with local protestors in vigils and political action. The police responded with a vengeance—showing up in full riot gear, launching tear gas into crowds, and other now familiar antics of a militarized police state. In a matter of hours, the unfolding events of Ferguson Missouri gained global attention. The analysis I offer now is an elucidation of the event structure of this media phenomenon as the memes propagated, interacted with one another, and evolved the discourse forward in time. Mapping the Life Cycle of the Michael Brown Meme Weekly Research Report for August 20, 2014
  3. 3. A Lesson From Evolutionary Biology - Punctuated Equilibrium The dynamic evolution of memes was very rapid. In a short amount of time there were many profound changes in public perception, social behavior, and acceptability of social norms. This kind of rapid change is well understood in evolutionary biology, going by the name punctuated equilibrium.1 Briefly, most of the 3.8 billion year fossil record is made up of gradual changes in the body forms of different animals, plants, microbial organisms, and fungi. These changes accumulate into dramatic refinements on geologic timescales of millennia and epochs. And yet, rare though they are in the record, there is evidence of a few times where change occurred very quickly when the environment was disrupted in some profound way. It is these “punctuated” events that disrupt the otherwise stable flow of evolutionary processes that are referred to in the Theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. What we are seeing in the cultural world of human societies today is a period of rapid global change—both in the architecture of social networks and media pathways and in the larger world of economic and environmental processes. Thus it is more commonplace that “viral” media events like Ferguson, Missouri are disrupting the cultural DNA of social discourse on timescales of hours to days. Changes that used to take years or even decades can now transpire over the span of a weekend. It is this power of accelerated change that we hope to unleash with meme strategies at /The Rules. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the broad arc of change that enabled the Ferguson Memescape to evolve this quickly. Stages of Evolution for Ferguson and the ‘Michael Brown’ Meme The narrative arc painted here is not rigorous or complete. It is based on my observations of sharing behavior on Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere as events unfolded. With this caveat in mind, we can already see a lot of structure that is “suggestive” for design of future campaign actions. The stages I observed were: 1. An early "incubation stage" where only those close to the event were following and posting about it. Typically these were people who lived in or near St. Louis area and were members of the African American community. 2. A "rapid escalation stage" where media coverage began to paint a picture of explosive militarization in the town. This happened when the local police force began aggressive actions against protestors and sympathizers to the cause of Michael Brown. 1 Learn more at http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosite/evo101/VIIA1bPunctuated.shtml Mapping the Life Cycle of the Michael Brown Meme Weekly Research Report for August 20, 2014
  4. 4. 3. A "saturation stage" where it became common talk, especially among urban liberals and members of historically marginalized communities. At this point it was a global conversation—so much so, in fact, that social activists in Gaza wrote articles about the use of social media to help protestors in Missouri to get their message out. 4. A "turning point stage" where the narrative shifted when a black police officer defused a lot of the rage. Most of the local police force is white. The majority of citizens are black, economically impoverished, and have a history of oppression by police. When an African American police officer joined the protestors, a cathartic healing process began within and outside of the physical boundaries of the Ferguson community. 5. Emergence of "hostile counter memes" from more politically conservative sources attempting to paint the victim, Michael Brown, as a less-than-human criminal unworthy of sympathy. A video was released to suggest that Brown was a thief and had shoplifted from the store where the shooting occurred. 6. This led to “counter insurgence” memes from Brown’s sympathizers making the assertion that his innocence was irrelevant because a minor theft did not warrant the use of lethal force. Subsequent internet content focused on discrediting the video footage— including some cyber hacker work by Anonymous to force the hand of the police and reveal key facts about the incident. 7. A "contagion and hybridization stage" where police brutality memes began to propagate in the context of fear about militarization independent of direct associations with what transpired in Ferguson. As one example, in the small town of Pierce City Missouri (roughly 250 miles west of St. Louis), there was an incident where a mother reported a police officer for drawing his weapon against her teenage child near the school grounds. This was evidence that widespread fear of police aggression had “tipped the scales” in the broader culture. 8. A "dissipation stage" where I began to see only those with extreme views on one side or the other engaging in chatter with each other. The majority of people now beginning to disengage and move on to the next buzzing topic. It’s fascinating to ponder how all of this works in real time. We can already see that the event began in the local geography of people directly involved in the community. It rapidly arose into a global phenomenon that was largely one-sided at first (in support of Michael Brown and the victims of policy brutality). Then it became more polarized as a distinct opposition formed against the spread of these memes. This lead to a back-and-forth of competition among the newly polarized memes—resulting, among other things, in the transferral of public sentiment to new social contexts that were not directly associated with the unfolding events. Mapping the Life Cycle of the Michael Brown Meme Weekly Research Report for August 20, 2014
  5. 5. At this point in time, the process continues to unfold around larger themes (like those mentioned at the beginning of this report). The memes associated with Ferguson and Michael Brown are now being wed to larger critiques of the military industrial complex, arms dealers, the militarization of police forces, authoritarian calls to “respect” police officers no matter what their behavior, mobilization of hate groups like the Klu Klux Klan, and more. What Can We Learn From This? First and foremost, it should be clear that this is a dynamic process. Nothing is stationary! No amount of linguistic analysis or exposition of semantic content will suffice if we fail to take the evolutionary dynamics of social interaction under consideration. We have to think in this dynamic way if we are to make sense of social change at all. How might we use this to inform future campaigns? Here are some things to watch out for: ✦ Look for “Activation Potential” :: Pent up frustration and unresolved feelings that people carry forward from past traumas or unrequited dreams. These emotions are the “fuel” for igniting conversational forest fires that rapidly spread. ✦ Note the Role of “The Spark” :: Igniting these firestorms of cultural evolution has to do with the structural resonance between shared sentiments and some catalyzing event. We may not be able to predict ahead of time when or where the event will occur (unless we are involved in the design of a catalyzing event). But we can definitely look for a match between potential for ignition and the kinds of sparks that could get things started. ✦ Ride the Wave of Polarization :: There is no way to avoid polarization in highly emotional processes of cultural change. Every society is made up of a diversity of worldviews, dominant values, and contradictory attitudes. Clash is unavoidable. Rather than trying to avoid it (which would mean no change at all), it is necessary to understand how countervailing forces compel the discourse to evolve more rapidly. ✦ Leverage the Breakdown of Key Narratives :: The story about Michael Brown’s innocence broke down among opposition groups. The acceptability of police brutality and militarization of civilian forces quickly got to a breaking point. These “turning points” are where leverage can be applied to accelerate change in desired directions. With these insights in mind, let’s go out and launch the next Occupy. Understanding the complex interplay of ideas, stories, media content, and social behavior is going to be essential for our long term success! Onward, Joe Mapping the Life Cycle of the Michael Brown Meme Weekly Research Report for August 20, 2014

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