Facebook Memes and Genetic Sequences Have More In Common Than You Think

The reason you like certain cat memes you see on Facebook may be a lot deeper than you think. Boy, does that sound weird. But if you think about it, a meme does go through an evolution. It starts with a funny picture with a few words and then someone else adds another word and maybe a different phrase and so on. The end result can be very different than what you had at the beginning. And just like genes, there are certain combinations that tend to be favorited more and survive (get reposted) longer. It is survival of the fittest….memes!

A new study decided to model memes as genes to study their evolution as they travel through Facebook. No one had been able to do this before, due to lack of data, until now. Facebook and researchers from The University of Michigan looked at more than 460 million individual meme instances. It found that as memes were modified slightly, they often became more popular. For example, adding the phrase “please post this” to the meme made it two times more likely to be shared. In 2009, 470,000 users posted this as an update: “No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, post this as your status for the rest of the day.”

According to Facebook’s blog post:

At some point someone created a variant by prepending “thinks that” (which would follow the individual’s name, e.g., “Sam thinks that no one…”), which was copied 60,000 times. The third most popular variant inserted “We are only as strong as the weakest among us” in the middle. “The rest of the day” at one point (probably in the late evening hours) became “the next 24 hours”. Others abbreviated it to “24 hrs”, or extended it to “the rest of the week.”

This post resulted in 121,605 different meme variants appearing in 1.14 million status updates. Basically Facebook researchers were looking at popular memes as they would the lineage of a genetic sequence.

According to BuzzFeed, the study’s release coincides with a push within Facebook to demote what it calls“low quality” posts and memes. Of course, Facebook is not spelling out what exactly “low quality” means (I have a feeling we can blame humble bragging for this). So why is this a big deal? This means that Facebook is making editorial judgements on posts. What do you think about that? 

Sounds a little scary futuristic utopia to me and kind of against the whole “free to share” mentality.