Memory, Social Networks, and Language: Probing the Meme Hypothesis II

The Social Structure of (Memetic) Diffusion

Bernie Hogan


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Despite its promise, difficulties in formalizing the meme concept have led researchers to question its ultimate effectiveness. However, taken merely as discrete units of imitatible and reproducible cultural information, memes abound on the Internet and have made their way into popular online discourse. The challenge online is not finding memes, but in filtering which memes individuals will express and redistribute.

Social media sites, originally intended as a means for filtering news, have become especially useful at broadcasting memes. Individual news stories or sometimes mere memes are voted upon, and the most popular ones make it to the front page of any given social media site. Unlike news sites, which are under editorial control, topics on these sites ebb and flow with popular online opinion.

This paper will present an overview of the social structures that facilitate diffusion generally and use as a particular case study. I begin with a social network understanding of diffusion and link it to the meme concept as well as social media sites. Thereafter, I demonstrate quantitatively that these sites are characterized by massive asymmetries in who gets their story selected as based on social structure. Finally, I show how in this context memes exhibit intense but brief periods of celebrity, based primarily on a meme's notoriety rather than its veracity.

Bernie Hogan is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto in the Department of Sociology. He is presently a research coordinator at NetLab, focusing on the Connected Lives and Connected Lives North projects and the development of software for personal networks. Barry Wellman is his dissertation supervisor. In 2009, he will be working as a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. In addition to his academic work, he has an interest in word art and cyberpoetics (making computer assisted poetry).