Competition Among Memes in a World with Limited Attention
What makes content go viral on the Internet? Theories abound, and the answers given often relate to the inherent quality or catchiness of the “meme,” or information unit. But research suggests that factors intrinsic to social networks may make the process more random — and less explicable — than is often assumed.
A 2012 study from Indiana University and Northeastern University published in Scientific Reports, “Competition Among Memes in a World with Limited Attention,” investigates the “mechanisms of competition” among memes and “how they shape the spread of information.” The researchers constructed a statistical model that simulates Twitter and compared it with actual Twitter patterns from October 2010 to January 2011 — analyzing some 120 million retweets, 12.5 million users and 1.3 million hashtags — to see how closely the model represented real-world behavior. In the statistical model, the memes did not have any qualitative content; they were merely passed along within certain parameters, such as users’ capacity to pay attention to information.
The study’s findings include:
- The model simulated viral patterns similar to those that actually occurred in Twitter, suggesting that viral memes can happen without any of the usual explanations — influential user involvement; quality, appeal or cleverness; or outside world or media events driving attention to certain concepts.
- User behavior can be modeled independent of actual meme content just by looking at the structure of the network and the limits of human attention. The key mechanism appears to be that, because users have limited attention, some “memes survive at the expense of others.”
- Social networks have built-in dynamics that propel memes as they compete for attention, and this “can account for the often-reported long-tailed distributions of topic popularity and lifetime.”
The authors do not assert that “intrinsic meme appeal” has no importance in driving viral trends, but the fact that similar viral effects can occur without external impetus has important implications: “This appears as an arresting conclusion that makes information epidemics quite different from the basic modeling and conceptual framework of biological epidemics. While the intrinsic features of viruses and their adaptation to hosts are extremely relevant in determining the winning strains, in the information world the limited time and attention of human behavior are sufficient to generate a complex information landscape and define a wide range of different meme spreading patterns.”
Tags: Twitter, social media
Read the issue-related Wired article titled "Are We Immune to Viral Marketing?"
- What key insights from the article and study should reporters be aware of as they cover digital communications dynamics?
Read the full study titled “Competition Among Memes in a World With Limited Attention.”
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?