In the opinion of this blogger, it is a universal truth that if one browses the internet long enough, one will encounter a digital artifact, idea, or trend that is simultaneously widespread yet devoid of any explanation for its ubiquity. Indeed, the lack of intellectual, humorous, artistic, spiritual, or any other sort of intrinsic value in the content of a particular meme makes its ever-presence that much more surprising. Well, we needn’t be surprised any longer!
According to a recent study by researchers at Indiana University, it seems that while intrinsic value such as content can affect the likelihood of a meme to ‘succeed’ and spread quickly, it is by no means necessary. Instead, the combination of complex human social networks and an excess of information competing for limited attention is enough to cause viral information epidemics. In basic terms, it may be that LOLcats are not actually funny, but rather the result of a confluence of random factors (sorry 4Chan!).
To prove this idea, Filippo Menczer and colleagues constructed a statistical model to simulate the information storm that is Twitter, and then compared the results of their model to the real thing–an archive millions of retweets, hashtags, and users from a few months of actual Twitter traffic. The difference between the real Twitter data and the model? In real life, it’s assumed that the content of a tweet determines whether it will be retweeted, and spread through the social network(s) of Twitter users. In the model, the memes had no content, and were simply communicated through the mock network with retweets performed at random.
Comparing the results from the model to the real-world data revealed that viral information spread did occur in the model, even without the intrinsic value of content. Indeed certain model “tweets” became massive, persistent hits. This is due to the limited attention of users, says Menczer, since each retweet increases a tweet’s prevalence, and makes it more likely that you, the user, will see it and retweet it. Moreover, each retweet serves to exclude other memes from the capacity of your attention, further narrowing your focus.
To be fair, the authors of the study are quick to point out that their conclusions are not to say that exogenous factors like intrinsic value or emotion have no bearing on the viral potential of a meme, but similar experiments proving that the effects of these factors cannot be explained by chance are needed. Still, this new finding begs the question, is this chemistry cat popular because it’s funny, or funny because it’s popular?