Home → Magazine Archive → January 2018 (Vol. 61, No. 1) → Popularity Spikes Hurt Future Chances For Viral Propagation... → Abstract

Popularity Spikes Hurt Future Chances For Viral Propagation of Protomemes

By Michele Coscia

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 61 No. 1, Pages 70-77

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A meme is a concept introduced by Dawkins12 as an equivalent in cultural studies of a gene in biology. A meme is a cultural unit, perhaps a joke, musical tune, or behavior, that can replicate in people's minds, spreading from person to person. During the replication process, memes can mutate and compete with each other for attention, because people's consciousness has finite capacity. Meme viral spreading causes behavioral change, for the better, as when, say, the "ALS Bucket Challenge" meme caused a cascade of humanitarian donations,a and for the worse, as when researchers proved obesity7 and smoking8 are socially transmittable diseases. A better theory of meme spreading could help prevent an outbreak of bad behaviors and favor positive ones.

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Studying memes in general is difficult because detecting and measuring them objectively is difficult. The inception of the web 30 years ago made it easier to focus on a subtype of meme—the one shared through social media. Researchers have since focused on the effect of timing, social networks, and limited user attention rather than on meme content.6,15,23 Being timely and shared by actors in key positions of a social network explains a large portion of a meme's virality. While these factors can help explain the meme ecosystem at large, both are exogenous to the meme itself. Even if endogenous meme characteristics have less compelling predictive power over meme popularity, it is still important to understand their relationship with virality, as such understanding can be applied case by case to specific memes, rather than produce only a description of the general mechanics of the overall system. For example, we11 showed that success eschews similarity; successful memes are generally found at the periphery of meme-similarity research. The more a meme is imitated, the less the original meme (and all its imitations) will be successful in going viral in the future.


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