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‘Infectious’ people spread memes across the web

August 16, 2009

by Colin Barras, New Scientist

The way that certain images, videos or concepts can suddenly spread like wildfire across the web, using email and social websites to propagate, is one of online culture’s most unique phenomena.

Now Spanish researchers claim to have found a way to accurately predict how quickly and widely new pieces of information, or “memes” as they are called, will spread. The ability to forecast this “viral” behaviour would be of great interest to sociologists and marketeers, among others.

The secret, they say, is to recognise the fact that people vary in how “infectious” they are when it comes to sharing content online. While some people pass on things they receive right away, others do so after some delay, or not at all.

Read on…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 17, 2009 10:18 am

    The choice of the term ‘meme’ is unfortunate, given its controversial history, but the study is nevertheless interesting. It strengthens my impression that we still don’t know much about the epidemiology of digital contents.

  2. August 18, 2009 9:56 pm

    See also this excellent post by dlende discussing the anthropologist TH Eriksen’s critique of memetics on the blog neuroanthropology:

  3. August 26, 2009 6:14 am

    I agree John. Although I’m a philosopher, I’ve spent a significant amount of time with ethnography, semiotics, and cultural theory. I am, in a number of respects, a reformed structuralist. I have a difficult time understanding why the meme thesis has generated so much ire and condemnation. I can understand why ethnographers and cultural theorists might look askance at meme theorists who have little or no grounding in cultural theory. But I can’t understand why it is so difficult to see the rather obvious point that cultural units must be replicated and therefore have an epidemiology, and that there are cultural units that immunize themselves in various ways against being selected against and that develop strategies for being replicated. This simple thesis, even if thin on ethnographic and semiotic details, is important and significantly lacking in cultural theory.

  4. August 26, 2009 11:08 am

    Absolutely! Very well put. I’ve written elsewhere about Debra Spitulnik’s work on the spread across Zambia of the English phrase “Over to you” which started with a radio programme by this name and then found all sorts of practical niches where it can live long and prosper (that is, become part of Zambian culture), e.g. weddings, choir rehearsals, letter writing. Spitulnik argues that part of its appeal is that it is a meta-pragmatic device useful in a whole range of discursive contexts.

    So, where do we start to build a theory of x (I dare not call it memetics) that will have a grounding in sociocultural theory?

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