If there’s one thing the internet is good at producing, it’s image memes. The quirky, bizarre images overlaid with big, bold text came to dominate sites popular with several internet subcultures, and the rise of social media helped propel them into the mainstream.
Scientists are obsessed with memes, too, but for reasons other than self-referential humor. For many researchers, memes allow them to peer into the structure of social networks or, in the case of a new study, deconstruct the makings of a cultural phenomenon.
Michele Coscia, a postdoc at the Harvard Center for International Development, analyzed a slew of image macro memes to study how they were connected and related to one another. In his network map, hit memes are the focal point of nodes. They’re closely and frequently connected to similar memes that are also (though slightly less) popular. Further out come the duds that play off the same theme. They’re out on the periphery of the node.
Here’s Jon Christian, reporting for Ars Technica:
What that suggests is that Coscia’s hypothesis is correct. Similarity to other memes decreases the probability that a meme will be successful. Coscia, who first became interested in memes after reading Richard Dawkins’ 1976 “The Selfish Gene” and lurking on meme-centric subreddits, believes that his research is the first to suggest that finding.
The results of Coscia’s current study provide a framework for understanding the underpinnings of success in meme culture, but aside from highlighting the role of novelty, they don’t explain why those superstar memes break out in the first place.
In a sense, Coscia’s core finding isn’t that surprising. Memes look a lot like any other cultural phenomenon, which are ignited by an idea or execution that’s fresh and imaginative. The original is then followed by scads of me-too works hoping to ride the coattails. While those copycats can achieve some measure of success, they aren’t necessarily revered in the same way as the original.
Coscia’s next project is to take the lessons he learned from studying memes and apply them to a larger body of culturally important works to see what makes them successful. Whatever it is, I’m guessing it’ll be hard to replicate.
Image credit: imgkid