John Naughton pointed me at an interesting piece by Chris Wilson in Slate. Wilson enlisted 3000 of his readers to help determine how the Facebook Meme "25 Random Things About Me" got started. But instead of finding a single "25 things" creator, he found something else much more interesting instead – that 25 things wasn't always 25 things. A "16 random things about me" had started speading it's way through Facebook in late Autumn, with people writing 16 things and then tagging 16 others to do the same. One of the rules dictated that those tagged should paste in the original instructions into their note, instructions which were soon tampered with meaning that "16 things" quickly morphed into 15, or 35, or even up to 100 (though Lord knows how people make that one work). More and more people changed the rules as the original structure crumbled:
Eventually (by late January) "25 random things about me" had begun to win through, Wilson's data showing a tipping point at which 25 things exploded.
When Wilson showed the data to Professor Lauren Ancel Meyers (who mathematically models the spread of infectious diseases), several interesting things came back, primarily that the meme exhibited the "classic exponential growth of an epidemic curve": 25 things authors could be seen as "contagious" under what she called the "susceptible-infected-recovered" model for the spread of disease – effectively that the authors were "contagious" for the day that they tag all of their friends and on that one day each author typically inspire 1.27 new posts during the meme's ascent phase. And in addition, the number of days between being tagged and writing the post (the median being 3 days) was exponential, but in decline:
I've been tagged on several blog memes of this type (and not always responded – sorry). The interesting thing about the blog versions though are that they typically involve a smaller number of random things – usually around 7 or 8, which is what (like John) I would have predicted the Facebook meme to have mutated into. Why it mutated into a higher number is perhaps a result of the difference in format (Facebook a slightly more informal form of communication, blogging perhaps more thoughtful), or maybe it's because the Facebook meme started out with a higher number to begin with?
Either way, the implications of all this are rather interesting. That rather than being created by "intelligent design", the propagation of ideas, as Richard Dawkin has said, has more to do with evolutionary principles of mutation and selection. And that, as Chris Wilson says:
"Facebook infections look remarkably similar to human ones. And like organisms, the odds do seem stacked against all but the fittest of memes…The best hope for someone looking to start a grass-roots craze is to introduce a wide variety of schemes into the wild and pray like hell that one of them evolves into a virulent meme. If evolution is any guide, however, there's no predicting what succeeds and what doesn't."
And also, here's Mark's take on this piece – as usual well worth a read.