As a publisher, understanding the flow of information online is as important as a civil engineer understanding traffic congestion. Unfortunately, so much of what takes place online has been insufficiently studied and quantified. For instance, what happens to your Facebook post when you ask people to share your status? A group of researchers from Facebook, the University of Michigan, and the Genome Institute of Singapore analyzed over 460 million pieces of data during an 18-month stretch, between April 2009 and October 2011, and have figured out how text-based Facebook memes spread.
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In total, the researchers identified over 4,000 memes that were copied, pasted, transcribed and mutated. Ninety-nine percent of the memes analyzed were by individuals, not business pages or groups. Here is what they learned.
Most meme mutations are neutral. It’s almost inevitable that when you’re playing a game of telephone with your Facebook posts, mutations will occur—and these changes typically happen at the beginning or ending of your post. However, the researchers found that in most cases the general meaning of the message was kept in tact. Occasionally a change is made to a meme that does alter the meaning, which can have a positive effect… more on that later.
Some memes ask for mutations… and that’s ok. For example, you may have come across a meme that asks, “What’s your child’s birth weight?” It would be expected that the answers from person-to-person would vary. The researchers examined whether mutation rate affects the successful spread of a meme, but found no overall effect of mutation rate on the total number of copies. Moreover, the most popular variants of the meme are just as likely to generate mutated copies as less popular ones.
Grammatical and spelling errors decreased the popularity of posts. Once again quality reigns supreme. The researchers found that when typos made their way into a meme, or if part of a meme was cutoff or mashed with another thought, creating a grammatical faux pas, the post withered.
One and done. Once a person posts a meme, they usually won’t post it again. For example, in their study the researchers followed the meme, “No one should die because they can’t afford health insurance…” and found that only 4.36% of people repeated the post later on. However…
Meme parody mutations can play an encore. When someone posted a meme from the previous example without the healthcare-related variant, such as, “No one should be without a beer because they cannot afford one,” 40.4% of the time they had previously posted the healthcare-related meme. Of the 61,979 users who posted one of these non-healthcare related variants, 93% had at least one friend who had posted a healthcare version of the meme.
Playing to your audience works. Again using a variant of the healthcare example above, people of the opposite opinion would post “No one should die because the government is involved with healthcare…” This was effective in spreading the meme by others who agreed—an example of a meme mutation at work.
“95% of you won’t copy this…” is more likely to get copied. When looking at a variety of statements with copy and paste instructions (“copy and paste” or “into your status”), encouragement and illusions to competition (“see how many people”), self-identification (“if you love your” or “proud to be a”), nothing worked as well as when an “of you won’t” statement was used. The researchers noticed a pattern, which included a statement such as, “95% of you won’t copy this, but the 5% who [have a positive attribute] will,” generated 10.98 copies on average, compared to 7.05 copies for the other instructions.
I hope this new understanding will help you with your future Facebook posts. Now go out there and spread your memes.