We Need to Advocate Radical Solutions to Systemic Problems

- Interview By Mark Karlin with Robert McChesney, Truthout, January 4, 2015

In this interview, Robert McChesney, author of “Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century,” discusses net neutrality advocacy, how the concentration of capital and media monopolies stifle democracy, and his hopes for a post-capitalist democracy in the United States.

Robert McChesney, a leader in challenging the corporate media’s role in degrading democracy, carries on this fight with Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century. In the book, he makes an urgent and compelling argument for ending communication monopolies and building a post-capitalist democracy that serves people over corporations. You can obtain the book now with a contribution to Truthout by clicking here.

Mark Karlin: In a Truthout Progressive Pick of the Week interview in 2013 about your book, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, you reflected profound pessimism about the capture of the internet by large corporations – and the evolution of net consumers into marketing “products.” Is the trend of the co-option of the web by a few large corporations accelerating?

Robert McChesney: Whether the process is accelerating is a difficult question to measure or to answer. That the process exists and that it is the dominant fact about the internet is not controversial. Barring radical policy intervention, the domination of the internet by a handful of gigantic monopolists will continue and remain the order of the day. After Digital Disconnect was published, I had a meeting in October 2013 with Sue Gardner, who was then the person in charge of Wikipedia. Sue told me that it would be impossible for Wikipedia or anything like it to get launched by then, because the system was locked down by the giants and privileged commercial values. I was left with the impression that Wikipedia got in just before the deadline, so to speak.

If economic power is concentrated in a few powerful hands you have the political economy for feudalism, or authoritarianism, not democracy.

What is striking about this corporate monopolization of the internet is that all the wealth and power has gone to a small number of absolutely enormous firms. As we enter 2015, 13 of the 33 most valuable corporations in the United States are internet firms, and nearly all of them enjoy monopolistic market power as economists have traditionally used the term. If you continue to scan down the list there are precious few internet firms to be found. There is not much of a middle class or even an upper-middle class of internet corporations to be found.

This poses a fundamental problem for democracy, though it is one that mainstream commentators and scholars appear reluctant to acknowledge: If economic power is concentrated in a few powerful hands you have the political economy for feudalism, or authoritarianism, not democracy. Concentrated economic power invariably overwhelms the political equality democracy requires, leading to routinized corruption and an end of the rule of law. That is where we are today in the United States.

You were a co-founder with John Nichols of Free Press, the leading citizens’ advocate for net neutrality. Do you have any expectation that the FCC [Federal Communications Commission], headed by a former lobbyist and shill for mass communication corporations, will actually preserve net neutrality – such as it is – by bestowing “common carrier” status on the internet?

Everything structurally points to a pessimistic answer, as your question implies. There are grounds for hope. First, understand that what net neutrality is trying to prevent is the privatization of the internet – its conversion to cable TV – by the handful of behemoths that have created a cartel for internet service provision (ISP), most notably Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. These firms are parasites who enjoy spectacular profitability due to their ability to build on government monopoly licenses and their ownership of politicians and regulators. But the balance of the corporate community has no particular reason to be enthusiastic about eliminating net neutrality.

When people tune out politics, they are not being hip or cool or ironic. They are being played.

It will simply mean that the ISPs will be able to shake them down for more money to have access to their networks. The ISP cartel has tried to buy off or at least neutralize key internet monopolists with varying degrees of success, but they cannot make an especially compelling argument. Corporations like Google are frustrated by the crappy, overpriced service the ISP cartels provide, and it is affecting their business models. So proponents of net neutrality have some important moneyed interests who are sympathetic to their cause. And in American politics today – where democracy in the textbook sense does not exist – that means everything. It is worth noting that in the scores of US cities with municipally owned and operated broadband networks, local businesses form an enthusiastic base of support. They love getting much better service – for them and their customers – at a lower cost.

Second, there is near unanimous public support for net neutrality among those who know what the issue is and what it is about. This is true across the political spectrum. Free Press has led the organizing coalition and the support is simply off the charts. Behind much of the so-called grassroots support for abolishing net neutrality among (the absurdly misnamed) “libertarian” groups on the right or civil rights groups of the left, one can find a direct or indirect payoff from the cartel. So a politician like Barack Obama used his unconditional support for net neutrality as a rallying cry for his presidential campaign in 2007-08. That has put him in an uncomfortable position in view of the cartel’s pressure on the FCC to accede to the cartel’s wishes. But Obama, to his credit, has recently restated his commitment to net neutrality and his support for seeing the internet regulated like a telecommunication industry would be by law. So there are grounds for hope.

Your latest book, Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy, returns – as you almost always do in your writing – to the issue of how the concentration of capital and corporate behemoths stifle democracy. Do you have any expectation – given how the internet offered so much promise of being a tool to invigorate a robust democracy and then was co-opted – that the course of unbridled capitalism can be reversed?

How the tension between really existing capitalism and democracy plays out in the United States is impossible to predict, but it is the definitional issue of our times and will be until it is resolved. Every other issue of note – from militarism and the environment to the quality of our lives and the status of our liberties – runs through it. In the book, I address the pessimism that pervades our times because of the sense that the powers-that-be are all-powerful, and resistance is therefore futile. Although understandable, and a safe position to take, it is also absurdly ahistorical. Humans invariably think that tomorrow will be an extension of today. Change is impossible to anticipate in a precise sense. Then once it happens everyone acts like they saw it coming. What we can do is understand the problems in our system and be prepared to resolve them in a humane and equitable manner when they grow so severe as to create crisis points. We do not have the luxury of giving up, because pessimism is self-fulfilling. And, as I discuss in the book, those in power are obsessed with depoliticizing society because they know we have the numbers on our side and they cannot win a fair fight. When people tune out politics, they are not being hip or cool or ironic. They are being played.

How do two of your chapters, “The US Imperial Triangle and Military Spending” and “The Penal State in an Age of Crisis,” illustrate the degeneration of capitalism in the US?

US capitalism is fundamentally flawed, and has a strong tendency toward stagnation. Left to its own devises, without exogenous factors, the private economy cannot generate sufficient jobs and incomes for full employment. That means low growth rates, rising poverty and growing inequality. Due to popular pressure, government politics can arrest these tendencies, with public works programs, progressive taxation, support for unions and the like. Capitalists generally oppose these measures as an impingement on their prerogatives and their control over the economy. Even in Scandinavia, where working-class victories created a much-admired social democracy (unless you are a FOX News fan), capitalists lie in wait always keen to reverse the victories and turn back the clock. In the United States, military spending became the one form of government stimulus spending that faced no serious opposition from capitalists coming out of World War II, and instead it created an army of corporate supporters: Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex. Militarism is now so hard-wired into really existing capitalism in the United States that the call to reduce it to a level approaching sanity becomes a demand to rethink the entire structure of the economy.

Civilian spending remained constant because a significant portion of what had been social spending was converted to prison spending, which is included in the civilian (non-military) spending category.

Since the 1970s, the far right has come to dominate American politics and both political parties have become more preoccupied with serving large corporations and billionaire investors – and much less concerned with the needs of the general population. In doing research on the matter of whether Obama might launch a new “New Deal” upon his election in 2008, my friend John Bellamy Foster and I wrote an essay that is in the book arguing that the key determinant of a new New Deal will be if the amount of government spending for civilian (non-military) purposes increases as a percentage of GDP above the level it had been stuck at since the New Deal raised it in the late 1930s. We argued that it was highly unlikely because of the strong corporate political pressures that exist, and we have been proven right.

But we were also struck by the fact that civilian spending at all levels of government had not changed much as a percentage of GDP for decades, despite all the right-wing attacks on social spending that have dominated the past three or four decades. How could that be? The answer became clear: Civilian spending remained constant because a significant portion of what had been social spending was converted to prison spending, which is included in the civilian (non-military) spending category. Factoring this in, the actual provision of social services had declined as a percentage of GDP. And now, as with the military, there is a huge private sector that benefits from the prison-industrial complex and lobbies for its expansion at every turn, while no major corporate interests oppose the expansion of prisons.

What does this illustrate about the degeneration of US capitalism? As a system, it requires extensive government spending, but it tends toward military and police spending as the preferred option, and that creates all sorts of spectacular problems for anything remotely close to democracy. This point was well understood by the [constitutional] framers who wanted to eliminate as much as possible the scourge of militarism from coming into existence. As Madison and Jefferson repeatedly wrote, a nation that is permanently at war cannot remain free. Militarism generated secrecy, inequality, corruption and what we would call jingoism that in combination would overwhelm democratic institutions and practices.

Truer words have never been written.

What do you mean by the term “post-capitalist” democracy?

If one believes, as I do, that the evidence points squarely to the conclusion that really existing capitalism is fundamentally flawed and increasingly incompatible with democracy and possibly human existence, then establishing an alternative is of paramount importance. I should qualify this immediately. I use the term “really existing capitalism” to describe what actually exists in the United States (and, to varying degrees, worldwide): massive corporations, unfettered greed, corrupt governance, hollowed-out democracy, endless corporate propaganda, obscene inequality, crumbling physical and social infrastructure, crappy, dead-end jobs and a mindless, narcissistic culture. I do not refer to the PR pabulum spewed by politicians and pundits about free markets, entrepreneurs, upward mobility, meritocracy and the invisible hand. That has as much to do with capitalism in the United States today as paeans to workers democracy did to describing the Soviet experience.

The problem with capitalism is ultimately that it radically increases the productive capacity of society but it keeps control over the wealth in the hands of profit-driven individuals and firms.

Why not call the alternative socialism? Well, I am a socialist and I understand that [socialism] to be a system where the vast wealth of society is controlled democratically and put to social purposes; it is not controlled by a narrow sliver of society to do with as suits them. I think the general Marxist assessment of capitalism’s fatal flaw applies today more than ever: The problem with capitalism is ultimately that it radically increases the productive capacity of society but it keeps control over the wealth in the hands of profit-driven individuals and firms, who control how this potential will be developed to suit their own interests. So it is that the productivity of the average worker is many times greater today than is was 50 years ago. But that increase in productivity has not translated into higher living standards, a shorter working week and/or a huge buildout of the infrastructure. Instead we see living standards in decline, inequality mushrooming and infrastructure in varying states of collapse, while there is a record number of gazillionaires. These are clear signs of an economic system that no longer plays a productive role and needs to be replaced.

But the term socialism begs as many questions as it answers and from my experience tends to get people off-track. I think we have to begin tangible discussions and debates over how to take important aspects of our society where capitalist control is clearly dangerous and inimical to democratic practices and values and eliminate it there. For example, take the profit out of militarism and prisons. No one should have a vested interest in war. Take the profit out of financial speculation, that serves no public good. Take the profit out of energy, if we agree that we have a handful of mega-corporations flossing their teeth with politicians’ underpants while the earth gets flame-broiled like a marshmallow. Let’s create nonprofit, accountable alternatives. The point is to replace profit-driven institutions with democratically run alternatives in key sectors, all the while extending democratic freedoms and practices. I could go on and on.

I have no particular antagonism to small business, and a great deal of respect for the people who launch and run them. I started two concerns in my life, one a for-profit rock magazine in Seattle and another a nonprofit public interest group called Free Press. Both succeeded not by exploiting the labor of its workers as much as exploiting the labor of its owners and management. We worked our butts off. I see small business as an extension of labor as much as an extension of capital. In this sense, I am influenced by Lincoln.

So to me the debate should not concern whether some dude selling falafel sandwiches out of his van near a football game should have his enterprise nationalized. That is idiotic. The debate has to be whether we can afford to have so much of the commanding heights of our economy under the control of billionaires and monopolists who use their immense power to enrich themselves but impoverish the rest of us. Until we start having that debate we will not make much headway on the great problems we face.

Can you expand upon your statement in the book that “many liberals who wish to reform and humanize capitalism are uncomfortable with seemingly radical movements, and often work to distance themselves from them”? What are the implications of such a stance?

One of the ironies of American politics is that an element of the progressive community recoils from what I just said because they fear it will antagonize people in power and limit their effectiveness when, say, Democrats win office. The argument is that we can only argue for positions that are acceptable to the mainstream liberal community or else we will lose our ability to influence policy because we will get cast into the wilderness as certified weirdos. The evidence is now in: that approach does not work.

What was most striking about the Occupy movement was how it instantly changed the discussion – albeit briefly – on inequality. Even the Republicans mouthed pieties that this was a real problem that needs a policy solution. That shows what happens when people take principled positions and stick to them. It also shows what happens when people take to the streets for nonviolent protest. It is why the right to assemble and redress grievances is as important a part of the First Amendment as freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The paradox is that when there are radicals in the streets raising hell on a principled position, it creates space for the “inside-the-system” crowd to actually get reforms accomplished. The 1960s and early 1970s is a great example of this. But the “inside-the-system” progressive crowd never quite gets that. To some extent it is because they gain their legitimacy by being border policemen, and denigrating those outside the corridors of power as irresponsible and not serious players.

How do you respond to those who argue that revolutionary economic change in the US is not possible because those who earn the minimum wage or are unemployed as a result of capitalist indifference often are ardently pro-capitalist and anti-socialist? This is documented particularly among whites who have only a high school education. What is the disconnect here in getting this demographic to join in systemic economic change that would benefit them?

Neil Postman tells the great story of two priests in a monastery who enjoy smoking every day during their morning prayers. They begin to wonder if this is sacrilegious, so they each wrote to the pope to get his benediction for their daily smoking fest. The first priest gets a letter back from the pope saying it is an insult to the faith to smoke during prayer time. The second priest gets a letter from the pope saying it is wonderful to smoke during prayer time. They looked at the two letters they had sent to the pope. The first priest asked the pope if it was OK to smoke during morning prayers and the pope was aghast in his response. The second priest asked if it was OK to go into a prayer while having a morning smoke. The pope was delighted to see the priest extending his spiritual commitment.

The problems we face are social problems – not individual ones – and require social solutions. That means political movements and activism.

The moral of the story: It is how one asks a question that shapes the type of answer you get. Because many of the best-known pollsters are stuck within a mainstream framework their questions accept and reinforce that framework. So one could probably ask a series of questions of white working-class people on fairness and justice that would make them look amenable to radical social change. These are not the sorts of questions that generally get asked.

It is striking that in recent years a few major pollsters have asked people whether they preferred capitalism or socialism. This would seem a loaded question because Americans know nothing about socialism except that it is a pejorative term to dismiss anyone whose ideas are considered out of bounds. Yet in recent years socialism has been almost as popular across the population as capitalism, and more popular among young Americans. That doesn’t say much about socialism, but it tells us a great deal about what the acceptance of really existing capitalism actually is. And that includes a lot for white working-class people.

This does not diminish the basis of your question, and the series of significant issues it raises, in particular, white supremacy and white racism and the role it plays. There are times that I am optimistic that we have made important headway on this issue and times that I am troubled by the lack of progress. It is a central issue in political organizing. In the book, I have a long chapter on the prison-industrial complex, and it is impossible to understand that phenomenon except through the lens of white racism.

You are a professor of communications at the University of Illinois. Are you seeing increased activism for economic change among the young people you teach and come in contact with?

Not really. There is clearly a willingness to take a harder look at capitalism and be critical of the obvious problems of the economic system today that was largely absent prior to 2008. Even my most conservative students want to get past the PR BS on free markets and understand why their future looks so grim. Students are more open-minded.

But the depoliticization of the past 40 years still weighs like a nightmare on their brains. Students are encouraged to see the world as it is and the solution is an individual solution, not a social one. Being “political” is a sign that someone is not cool and is a weirdo, and God forbid that is the last thing anyone wants to be accused of. This is an issue I write about at some length in the book, because those atop our society regard it as mission critical to keep the nation depoliticized. Their survival depends upon it.

But the problems we face are social problems – not individual ones – and require social solutions. That means political movements and activism. I am optimistic we are moving toward a more political moment as there really is no other credible option.

The book contains a chapter on the 2011 Wisconsin uprising against Scott Walker. What do you say to people who dismiss the historic, massive and lengthy protests in Madison as an anomaly – that the re-election of Scott Walker as governor of the state this year (2014) indicates that the revolt had no long-term impact?

It is too early to know what to make of the Wisconsin uprising, and to dismiss it categorically at this point is absurd. I was at the demonstrations almost every day for six weeks, and I was there as a member of the crowd and not as a “leader.” It was an extraordinary experience. What it taught me was that there is a wellspring of progressive and humane politics in people that is being repressed. The energy, the enthusiasm, the intelligence, the solidarity of the demonstrations was entirely unexpected and almost defies description. (Fortunately it does not, or I could not have written a chapter on it.)

The experience, like Occupy later in the year, raises all sorts of serious questions and issues for organizers going forward. But the idea that the re-election of Scott Walker proves it flopped seems wrong to me, though I can understand the idea. Walker’s victory in the 2012 recall election and then his 2014 re-election has much more to do with: 1) the idiocy of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which ran incomprehensibly terrible campaigns, especially in 2012; 2) how low voter turnout is crucial to right-wing success – Scott Walker could not win a statewide election in a presidential year when the turnout is closer to 60 percent than 40 percent of adults; 3) money means everything and Scott Walker had unbelievable amounts of it, largely from out-of-state gazillionaires; 4) the absence of journalism means people were increasingly reliant upon asinine TV political ads; and 5) Scott Walker had enough money to flood the airwaves with his propaganda. And it was world-class propaganda.

The importance of media reform in achieving a robust democracy is something you frequently return to. Can you briefly discuss the top three media reform steps that you recommend at the end of the book?

I argue that some of the most brilliant left thinkers of the postwar era moved toward a position that democratizing the media system was central to creating a democratic socialism. I did this research with my buddy Duke Foster because much of it has been ignored or forgotten with the demise of the New Left and the long winter of neoliberalism in the 1970s.

I believe that is still the case, and I believe that communication is an area where there are immediate demands to be developed that can be foundational to a post-capitalist democracy in the United States. I also believe – in fact, I know from personal experience – that each of these issues has the potential for support outside of the political left, even among self-described conservatives. First, let’s eliminate the ISP cartel of Verizon, Comcast and AT&T. Those mega-corporations have divvied up the broadband market and as a result the US pays a fortune for crappy service for broadband, cable, satellite and cell phones. These firms are parasites pure and simple, and play no productive role. There is a magnificent already successful alternative with municipal broadband, and we should have that nationally. These firms – all based on government monopoly franchises and their control of politicians and regulators – have to go. Broadband should be ubiquitous and free.

Ironically, as I motioned before, as radical as this sounds, it is actually a measure that has great appeal to businesses that do not benefit directly from the existence of the cartel. Businesses would love to lower their own costs and also have much better speeds and service for their markets.

What we need is to recognize that journalism is a public good, something society desperately needs but that the market cannot and will not generate in sufficient quantity or quality.

Second, as I also mentioned above, the digital revolution has spawned a dozen or so super-monopolies that dominate not only communication, but capitalism itself. The digital revolution permeates every aspect of the economy. These dozen or so firms simply have too much power for democracy to successfully co-exist with it. It is not just economic power, but political power, that is the concern. This is not simply a left-wing concern. Indeed, it was Henry Simons, Milton Friedman’s mentor at the University of Chicago, who said monopolies were unacceptable, because they destroyed competitive capitalism as well as genuine democracy and the rule of law. The laissez faire champion Simons said if the giants could not be effectively broken into smaller pieces, they should be taken over by the government and run like the post office. I think that is a good way to understand what to do with these giants, especially now that we know the dreadful consequences of their lucrative and secretive marriage with the national security state.

Finally, the resources going toward journalism are in free fall collapse, as the commercial model is evaporating. I have written about this at length for years and will not repeat the analysis here. Nor will I discuss how the absence of journalism produces an existential crisis for any known theory of self-government, and with that the preservation of our freedoms. In a nutshell, advertising provided the lion’s share of support for news media for the past 125 years, and, with the internet, that support has disappeared for the most part. Hence we have maybe 40 percent of the working reporters and editors as we did a generation ago on a per capita basis. It is only going to get worse. (In the book, I have some new research on how Walter Lippmann assessed the last great crisis in journalism almost 100 years ago. It has some important lessons for us.)

What we need is to recognize that journalism is a public good, something society desperately needs but that the market cannot and will not generate in sufficient quantity or quality. We need extensive public support but without government control over who gets the money. That is the great public policy issue we face and a lot is riding on whether we rise to the occasion. The same problem faces every nation on the planet, though each country has somewhat different circumstances.

In the book, I develop an idea that I have written about a good deal in the past, the notion of the $200 voucher. Basically every person over 18 can allocate $200 of government money to any recognized nonprofit news medium of her choice. The core idea comes from Milton Friedman, who accepted that it was necessary to have government funding for education, but did not want to have government-run schools. Friedman’s voucher scheme proved to be a crappy idea for public education, but it is a brilliant idea for news media. You get up to a $40 billion annual subsidy with no government control over who gets the money. Anyone who accepts the vouchers cannot also accept advertising so there is no competition for what little remains of commercial news media. Anything produced as a result of the vouchers must be put online for free immediately and enter the public domain, so anyone can use the work. And people can change their allocation every year so there is tremendous competition to win support.

The idea is becoming increasingly popular. I think it is an idea whose time has come.

Mark Karlin

Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout.  He served as editor and publisher of BuzzFlash for 10 years before joining Truthout in 2010.  BuzzFlash has won four Project Censored Awards. Karlin writes a commentary five days a week for BuzzFlash, as well as articles for Truthout. He also interviews authors and filmmakers whose works are featured in Truthout’s Progressive Picks of the Week.


Upworthy says we’ve been doing viral all wrong: serious stuff is more shareable than LOL cats

By Hamish McKenzie, pandodaily.com, April 3, 2013


Upworthy will mark its first birthday… founders, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley…prides itself on helping videos and infographics about important social issues reach huge audiences through social media…Upworthy – essentially a curator, re-packager, and re-distributor of other people’s content – one of the fastest-growing media businesses of the millennium. What’s more, the 20-person company has achieved that fast growth based on a belief that until recently might otherwise have been dismissed as naive: That serious news and socially conscious commentary can be as widely shared as listicles about pop singers pulling strange faces. In fact, Pariser and Koechley now believe that serious news might even be more shareable than..cute, silly, wacky, or surprising, but actually we’re better than that.

“People also share because they’re moved to real emotion, because they’re passionate about an issue and want to get the ideas heard more widely,” he says. “People want to share the aspirational, better-angel side of themselves. They want to show off the fact that they actually do care about social issues, that they are smart and keeping up with the news.”… The company is also hyper-focused on distribution…Upworthy employs several people to concentrate specifically on “audience development,” which means paying close attention to how to present content across various channels – the most important of which is Facebook – and how to keep people engaged in those places…Upworthy’s long-term monetization plans seem to revolve around the idea of building a large community of people who care about stuff that matters…email list that is almost 2 million names strong. Pariser and Koechley are confident they can eventually grow that network to tens of millions of people…

Full text

Tonight, Upworthy will mark its first birthday with a party hosted at the New York residence of Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder and now owner of the New Republic, who is one of the media startup’s investors. The founders, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, will have much to celebrate. Since launching on March 26, 2012, Upworthy, which prides itself on helping videos and infographics about important social issues reach huge audiences through social media, has accumulated 1.2 million fans on Facebook, 2 million registered members, and $4 million in venture backing in a round led by NEA. In March, its 12th month of existence, its website passed 11 million unique visits, dwarfing the efforts of the Huffington Post and Business Insider, who had about 1 million uniques each at the same points in their lifespans.

That makes Upworthy – essentially a curator, re-packager, and re-distributor of other people’s content – one of the fastest-growing media businesses of the millennium. What’s more, the 20-person company has achieved that fast growth based on a belief that until recently might otherwise have been dismissed as naive: That serious news and socially conscious commentary can be as widely shared as listicles about pop singers pulling strange faces. In fact, Pariser and Koechley now believe that serious news might even be more shareable than photos of ill-tempered cats and ironic songs about moneyed neighbourhoods in Seoul, South Korea.

Koechley, who in a previous life was managing editor at The Onion, says that people have misunderstood viral media. Many media companies think we share because something is cute, silly, wacky, or surprising, but actually we’re better than that.

 “People also share because they’re moved to real emotion, because they’re passionate about an issue and want to get the ideas heard more widely,” he says. “People want to share the aspirational, better-angel side of themselves. They want to show off the fact that they actually do care about social issues, that they are smart and keeping up with the news.”

The founders weren’t completely confident that deep, serious content would succeed. Koechley says when they launched the company, they worried that fluffier, superficial stuff would be the content that gets shared the most. But that wasn’t entirely the case. “We’ve found that when we look back over the year, some of our top 10, top 20 most popular things have also been some of the top 10 or 20 most meaty and substantive things,” he says, including a 13-minute video about New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy that has now been viewed more than 800,000 times, and a video of a preacher who attacks gay marriage and then changes his mind on the spot, which has garnered more than 3 million views.

Still, it’s possibly over-optimistic to say that “important” news content could become more widely shared than fun and frivolous material. As our own David Holmes pointed out last year, the 13 most-viewed BuzzFeed posts ever demonstrate a strong bias towards oddities, jokes, animals, and pop culture instead of serious reporting. However, Koechley suggests that BuzzFeed’s serious reporting is often packaged in a very different way to its light-hearted listicles.

Along with BuzzFeed, Upworthy has been credited with mastering the art of sticking compelling headlines on videos and graphics that might otherwise seem a bit dry, and its curators certainly put a lot of effort into that task, writing as many as 25 different headlines for every piece of content before ultimately deciding on a winner. Three examples from the site today:

However, Upworthy’s initial success is about more than just clever headlines. The company is also hyper-focused on distribution, says Pariser, who co-founded Upworthy after leaving a role as executive director of progressive policy advocacy group MoveOn. “If you put together the most perfect editorial gem in the world but there’s no one to look at it, it really doesn’t matter,” Pariser says.

Upworthy employs several people to concentrate specifically on “audience development,” which means paying close attention to how to present content across various channels – the most important of which is Facebook – and how to keep people engaged in those places. That entails a lot of digging through the analytics and A/B testing to see what works, and why, in certain situations. It also involves working hard to get content pushed out by influential people. For instance, former “Star Trek” star George Takei, who has 3.8 million fans on Facebook, drives more than 20,000 people to Upworthy at any one time for hours on end whenever he posts something from the site, says Pariser. “We put the energy into pitching him that other folks would put into pitching a big magazine or a big newspaper.”

It has paid off. Edward Kim, CEO of social analytics firm SimpleReach, tracks 5,000 publishers and found that 20 percent of the social actions it records on a daily basis come from Upworthy – significantly more than any other single site. As well, notes Kim, 70 percent of Upworthy’s traffic is social, which is the best by far of any of the mediums or large-sized publishers that SimpleReach tracks.

“This isn’t a case of seemingly grey-hat practices taking advantage of a temporary loophole like Socialcam or Viddy,” Kim says, pointing out that all of Upworthy’s social numbers are completely organic. “It’s all transparently user-driven, and it really speaks to Upworthy’s editorial voice and curatorial skills as a company.”

The challenge now for Upworthy will be to translate its early momentum into serious cash. It has to pay back that venture money somehow. Currently, the company makes money from referral fees by driving people to donate to causes such as Oxfam and the Sierra Club. Pariser describes that as a “perfectly good revenue stream,” but Upworthy’s long-term monetization plans seem to revolve around the idea of building a large community of people who care about stuff that matters – which explains why every visitor to its site is assaulted with a “Do you care about this issue?” pop-up, with an accompanying email sign-up box.

The company has used that pushy tactic to build an email list that is almost 2 million names strong. Pariser and Koechley are confident they can eventually grow that network to tens of millions of people, who could then be monetized in various ways, of which the founders are only willing to speak in very vague terms. One of their ideas is to help Upworthy members build their own social audiences and let them pay to promote anything important they have to say.

For now, however, Upworthy’s attention is firmly on the share buttons. Seriously.


How Frank Luntz Is Killing the GOP

by Brett C. Di Resta, Huffington Post.com,  04/ 9/2012


..Frank Luntz is a top Republican pollster and wordsmith. Luntz is best known for working with Republicans on language, making sure that Republican talking points are soothing to the ear of Americans. The motto on his website is “its not what you say, it’s what they hear.” His strategy has been an unbridled success for the GOP. Republicans have learned that it’s not what they are selling, but how they sell it that is important. So the inheritance tax became the death tax. And anti-environmental bills get very green-friendly names, like Clear Skies… the GOP learned how to use the right poll-tested words…Another problem with winning with Luntz-style politics is that it has led to hubris; Republicans believe they can talk their way out of anything. Just look at their strategy in the war against women…RNC Chairman Reince Priebus blamed the media…No politician has shown greater adherence to verbiage and less fidelity to substance than Mitt Romney. Romney…

Full text

This post isn’t what you expect. I’m not here to bury Frank Luntz, but to praise him. For those not familiar, Frank Luntz is a top Republican pollster and wordsmith. Luntz is best known for working with Republicans on language, making sure that Republican talking points are soothing to the ear of Americans. The motto on his website is “its not what you say, it’s what they hear.”

His strategy has been an unbridled success for the GOP. Republicans have learned that it’s not what they are selling, but how they sell it that is important. So the inheritance tax became the death tax. And anti-environmental bills get very green-friendly names, like Clear Skies. Let’s just say the Pink Slime folks ought to have put Mr. Luntz on their speed dial.

More recently, the focus on language as opposed to substance, has led to foolish policy prescriptions. In 2011, the Ryan budget plan was a debacle. Citizens rebelled against the idea of ending Medicare as an entitlement while cutting taxes for the rich. After such a debacle one would think Republicans would change their policy, right?

Not the party of Luntz. As a Politico story laid out, the GOP just changed the way they talked about the plan.

And perhaps most important, the GOP learned how to use the right poll-tested words… Last year, (Republicans) were blindsided by the backlash to the Wisconsin Republican’s plan. It was immediately framed by Democrats as ending Medicare, crushing Medicaid while keeping taxes low for the rich. Ryan, who was being pitched as a presidential prospect for the party, receded as his plan came under attack from all sides.

The 2012 plan is — simply put — to not talk about the plan too much.

And there you have the modern GOP in a nutshell. When America hates their policies, they don’t change it or heaven forbid, compromise. No, they just use new “poll-tested words.”

Another problem with winning with Luntz-style politics is that it has led to hubris; Republicans believe they can talk their way out of anything. Just look at their strategy in the war against women.

Poll after poll shows that the GOP’s policies, be it transvaginal ultrasounds or making contraception coverage harder to get, have been a disaster with women. A recent Gallup poll indicates an 18-point gender gap in favor of President Obama.

But you wouldn’t know it was a problem by the GOP response. South Carolina Governor and VP contender Nikki Haley went on television and said, “Women don’t care about contraception.” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus blamed the media for the GOP’s problem with women. It’s as if the GOP is trying to pull the Jedi Mind Trick on the entire population.

Now, at the top of the ticket, we have a Luntzian candidate in its purest form. No politician has shown greater adherence to verbiage and less fidelity to substance than Mitt Romney. Romney, the true heir to Luntz, may cost the GOP in the end. And that may be too good for words.


How to Read in 2013

By ROSS DOUTHAT, New York Times, December 29, 2012

COME what may in the next 12 months, 2013 has this much going for it: It’s a year without a midterm election, and a year that’s as far removed as possible from the next presidential race. This means that for a blessed 365 days you can be a well-informed and responsible American citizen without reading every single article on Politico, without hitting refresh every 30 seconds on your polling-average site of choice, without channel-hopping between Chris Matthews’s hyperventilating and Dick Morris’s promises of an inevitable Republican landslide.

So use the year wisely, faithful reader. For a little while, at least, let gridlock take care of itself, shake yourself free of the toils of partisanship, and let your mind rove more widely and freely than the onslaught of 2014 and 2016 coverage will allow.

Here are three steps that might make such roving particularly fruitful. First, consider taking out a subscription to a magazine whose politics you don’t share. I’m using the word “subscription” advisedly: it may sound fusty in the age of blogs and tweets and online hopscotching, but reading the entirety of a magazine, whether in print or on your tablet, is a better way to reckon with the ideas that its contributors espouse than just reading the most-read or most-e-mailed articles on its Web site, or the occasional inflammatory column that all your ideological compatriots happen to be attacking.

So if you love National Review’s political coverage, add The New Republic or The Nation to your regular rotation as well. If you think that The New Yorker’s long-form journalism is the last word on current affairs, take out a Weekly Standard subscription and supplement Jeffrey Toobin with Andy Ferguson, Adam Gopnik with Christopher Caldwell. If you’re a policy obsessive who looks forward every quarter to the liberal-tilting journal Democracy, consider a subscription to the similarly excellent, right-of-center National Affairs. And whenever you’re tempted to hurl away an article in disgust, that’s exactly when you should turn the page or swipe the screen and keep on reading, to see what else the other side might have to say.

Second, expand your reading geographically as well as ideologically. Even in our supposedly globalized world, place still shapes perspective, and the fact that most American political writers live in just two metropolitan areas tends to cramp our ability to see the world entire.

So the would-be cosmopolitan who currently gets a dose of British-accented sophistication from The Economist — a magazine whose editorial line varies only a little from the Manhattan-and-D.C. conventional wisdom — might do well to read the London Review of Books and The Spectator instead. (The multilingual, of course, can roam even more widely.) The conservative who turns to Manhattan-based publications for defenses of the “Real America” should cast a bigger net — embracing the Californian academics who preside over the Claremont Review of Books, the heartland sans-culottes at RedState, the far-flung traditionalists who write for Front Porch Republic. And the discerning reader should always have an eye out for talented writers — like the Montanan Walter Kirn, the deserving winner of one of my colleague David Brooks’s Sidney Awards — who cover American politics from outside D.C. and N.Y.C.

Finally, make a special effort to read outside existing partisan categories entirely. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean reading reasonable-seeming types who split the left-right difference. It means seeking out more marginal and idiosyncratic voices, whose views are often worth pondering precisely because they have no real purchase on our political debates.

Start on the non-Republican right, maybe, with the libertarians at Reason magazine, the social conservatives at First Things and Public Discourse, the eclectic dissidents who staff The American Conservative. Then head for the neo-Marxist reaches of the Internet, where publications like Jacobin and The New Inquiry offer a constant reminder of how much room there is to the left of the current Democratic Party.

And don’t be afraid to lend an ear to voices that seem monomaniacal or self-marginalizing, offensive or extreme. There are plenty of writers on the Internet who are too naïve or radical or bigoted to entrust with any kind of power, but who nonetheless might offer an insight that you wouldn’t find in the more respectable quarters of the press.

If these exercises work, they’ll make 2013 a year that unsettles your mind a little — subjecting the views you take for granted to real scrutiny, changing the filters through which you view the battles between Team R and Team D, reminding you that more things are possible in heaven and earth than are dreamed of by John Boehner and Harry Reid.

Then, and only then, will you be ready to start counting the days till the 2016 Iowa caucuses arrive.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/DouthatNYT.


Group Challenges Corporate Power, Government Secrecy With Crowd-Funded Transparency

Andrea Germanos, December 17, 2012 by Common Dreams

‘We all have a stake in the Freedom of the Press Foundation’r

A new organization launched Monday aims to fight government and corporate corruption by crowd-funding transparency journalism, and believes “that not only does WikiLeaks need to survive, it must be joined by an array of others like it.”

The financial embargo of WikiLeaks catalyzed this new group, Freedom of the Press Foundation, whose co-founders include whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow, and Rainey Reitman, founder of Bradley Manning Support Network.

Lawyer and Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald, who is on the board of directors of the foundation, writes:

The primary impetus for the formation of this group was to block the US government from ever again being able to attack and suffocate an independent journalistic enterprise the way it did with WikiLeaks. Government pressure and the eager compliance of large financial corporations (such as Visa, Master Card, Bank of America, etc.) has – by design – made it extremely difficult for anyone to donate to WikiLeaks, while many people are simply afraid to directly support the group (for reasons I explained here).

“Financial transactions are speech. The financial embargo was censorship – not just of WikiLeaks but of all of us who wished to donate to WikiLeaks,” stated Barlow, who is also board member.

Explaining how the funding will work, Greenwald continues:

We intend to raise funds ourselves and then distribute it to the beneficiaries we name. The first group of beneficiaries includes WikiLeaks. We can circumvent those extra-legal, totally inappropriate blocks that have been imposed on the group. We can enable people to support WikiLeaks without donating directly to it by donating to this new organization that will then support a group of deserving independent journalism outlets, one of which is WikiLeaks. In sum, we will render impotent the government’s efforts to use its coercive pressure over corporations to suffocate not only WikiLeaks but any other group it may similarly target in the future.

The first group of beneficiaries, Ellsberg and EFF co-founder John Perry Barlow write, are “the still-beleaguered WikiLeaks,” as well as “MuckRock News, which streamlines Freedom of Information Act requests so that ordinary people can file them easily, The National Security Archive, which has been prying open the black boxes of classified information for years, and The UpTake, a combative Midwestern collective of citizen journalists focused on bringing transparency to state and local governments.”

“So much of what impacts us happens locally and it’s where information is most likely to be hidden or overlooked,” said one of The UpTake’s founders, Executive Producer Michael McIntee.

Explaining their effort to “crowd-fund the right to know,” Ellsberg and Barlow write that “secure conduits for anonymously-provided documents that the citizens whose lives and liberties they impact have a natural right to see… are needed more than ever.”  They continue:

In 2011, the U.S. Government classified over 92 million documents, four times more than were classified under George Bush in 2008. Moreover, President Obama’s Justice Department has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all the previous administrations combined.

When a government becomes invisible, it becomes unaccountable. To expose its lies, errors, and illegal acts is not treason, it is a moral responsibility. Leaks become the lifeblood of the Republic.

Urging support for the group, Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight center for digital media entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite school of journalism and mass communication, writes that it is not just journalists who should care about the organization; “we all have a stake in the Freedom of the Press Foundation:”

The obvious question raised by the Freedom of the Press Foundation initiative is whether the payment systems will shut this off, too. If they do, they’ll be punishing not just WikiLeaks, but the entire journalism ecosystem – and ultimately, your right to get the information you want and need. Will they extend the bad faith they showed two years ago?

That I even have to ask this question is evidence of the power of these centralized mega-corporations. They have far too much power, like too many other telecommunications companies and a number of others in the information and communications industries on which we rely more and more for our daily activities.

The Freedom of the Press Foundation can be a first step away from the edge of a cliff. But it needs to be recognized and used by as many people as possible, as fast as possible. And journalists, in particular, need to offer their support in every way. This is ultimately about their future, whether they recognize it or not. But it’s more fundamentally about all of us.

In addition to Ellsberg, Barlow, Greenwald and Reitman, the board of directors includes Josh Stearns of Free Press, actor and activist John Cusack, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, founding partner and co-editor of Boing Boing Xeni Jardin and writer, activist, and lawyer Trevor Timm.

You can follow Freedom of the Press Foundation on Twitter and its website.

Article printed from www.CommonDreams.org

Source URL: http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/12/17-3

Competition among memes in a world with limited attention

Scientific Reports, March 2012, by  L. Weng, A. Flammini, A. Vespignani, & F. Menczer

Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 335, doi:10.1038/srep00335

Received 19 September 2011, Accepted 08 March 2012, Published 29 March 2012

The wide adoption of social media has increased the competition among ideas for our finite attention. We employ a parsimonious agent-based model to study whether such a competition may affect the popularity of different memes, the diversity of information we are exposed to, and the fading of our collective interests for specific topics. Agents share messages on a social network but can only pay attention to a portion of the information they receive. In the emerging dynamics of information diffusion, a few memes go viral while most do not. The predictions of our model are consistent with empirical data from Twitter, a popular microblogging platform. Surprisingly, we can explain the massive heterogeneity in the popularity and persistence of memes as deriving from a combination of the competition for our limited attention and the structure of the social network, without the need to assume different intrinsic values among ideas.

Subject terms:


Information theory and computation

Statistical physics, thermodynamics and nonlinear dynamics

Theoretical physics

At a glance









Author information


Ideas have formidable potential to impact public opinion, culture, policy, and profit1. The advent of social media2 has lowered the cost of information production and broadcasting, boosting the potential reach of each idea or meme3. However, the abundance of information to which we are exposed through online social networks and other socio-technical systems is exceeding our capacity to consume it. Ideas must compete for our scarce individual and collective attention. As a result, the dynamic of information is driven more than ever before by the economy of attention, first theorized by Simon4. Yet the processes that drive popularity in our limited-attention world are still largely unexplored5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15.

The availability of data from online social media has recently created unprecedented opportunities to explore human and social phenomena on a global scale16, 17. In this context one of the most challenging problems is the study of the competition dynamics of ideas, information, knowledge, and rumors. Understanding this problem is crucial in a broad range of settings, from viral marketing to scientific discovery acceleration. Aspects of competition for limited attention have been studied through news, movies, and topics posted on blogs and social media10, 11, 13. The popularity of news decreases with the number of competing items that are simultaneously available8, 18, 19.

However, even in the simplified settings of social media platforms, it is hard to disentangle the effects of limited attention from many concurrent factors, such as the structure of the underlying social network7, 13, the activity of users and the size of their potential audience19, the different degrees of influence of information spreaders20, the intrinsic quality of the information they spread21, the persistence of topics22, 23, and homophily24. To compound these difficulties, social networks that host information diffusion processes are not closed systems; exogenous factors like exposure to traditional media and their reports of world events play important roles in the popularity and lifetime of specific topics10, 25. Another example of our limited attention is the cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships that we can sustain, as postulated by Dunbar26 and recently supported by analysis of Twitter data27.

We propose an agent-based model to study the role of the limited attention of individual users in the diffusion process, and in particular whether competition for our finite attention may affect meme popularity, diversity, and lifetime. Although competition among ideas has been implicitly assumed as a factor behind, e.g., the decay in interest toward news and movies28, 8, 10, to the best of our knowledge nobody has attempted to explicitly model the mechanisms of competition and how they shape the spread of information. In particular, we show that a simple model of competition on a social network, without any further assumptions about meme merit, user interests, or explicit exogenous factors, can account for the massive heterogeneity in meme popularity and persistence.








Author information


Here we outline a number of empirical findings that motivate both our question and the main assumptions behind our model. We then describe the proposed agent-based toy model of meme diffusion and compare its predictions with the empirical data. Finally we show that the social network structure and our finite attention are both key ingredients of the diffusion model, as their removal leads to results inconsistent with the empirical data.

We validate our model with data from Twitter, a micro-blogging platform that allows many millions of people to broadcast short messages through social connections. Users can “follow” interesting people, by which a directed social network is formed. Posts (“tweets”) appear on the screen of followers. People can forward (“retweet”) selected posts from their screen to their followers. Furthermore, users often mark their posts with topic labels (“hashtags”). Let us use these tags as operational proxies to identify memes. A retweet carries a meme from user to user. As a meme spreads in this way, it forms a cascade or diffusion network such as those illustrated in Fig. 1. We collected a sample of retweets that include one or more hashtags, produced by Twitter users over a specific period of time (see details in Methods section). This provides us with a quantitative framework to study the competition for attention in the wild.

Figure 1: Visualizations of meme diffusion networks for different topics.

Nodes represent Twitter users, and directed edges represent retweeted posts that carry the meme. The brightness of a node indicates the activity (number of retweets) of a user, and the weight of an edge reflects the number of retweets between two users. (a) The #Japan meme shows how news about the March 2011 earthquake propagated. (b) The #GOP tag stands for the US Republican Party and as many political memes, displays a strong polarization between people with opposing views. Memes related to the “Arab Spring” and in particular the 2011 uprisings in (c) #Egypt and (d) #Syria display characteristic hub users and strong connections, respectively.

Full size image (815 KB)

Figures/tables index


Limited attention

We first explore the competition among memes. In particular, we test the hypothesis that the attention of a user is somewhat independent from the overall diversity of information discussed in a given period. Let us quantify the breadth of attention of a user through Shannon entropy S = −Σi f(i) log f(i) where f(i) is the proportion of tweets generated by the user about meme i. Given a user who has posted n messages, her entropy can be as small as 0, if all of her posts are about the same meme; or as large as log n if she has posted a message about each of n different memes. We can measure the diversity of the information available in the system analogously, defining f(i) as the proportion of tweets about meme i across all users. Note that these entropy-based measures are subject to the limits of our operational definition of a meme; finer or coarser definitions would yield different values.

In Fig. 2 we compare the daily values of the system entropy to the corresponding average user entropy. The key observation here is that a user’s breadth of attention remains essentially constant irrespective of system diversity. This is a clear indication that the diversity of memes to which a user can pay attention is bound. With the continuous injection of new memes, this indirectly suggests that memes survive at the expense of others. We explicitly assume this in the information diffusion model presented later.

Figure 2: Plot of daily system entropy (solid red line) and average user breadth of attention (dashed blue line).Days in our observation period are ranked from low to high system entropy, therefore the latter is monotonously increasing.

Full size image (157 KB)


Figures/tables index


User interests

It has been suggested that topical interests affect user behavior in social media29, 30. This is a potentially important ingredient in a model of meme diffusion, as an interesting meme may have a competitive advantage. Therefore we wish to explore whether user interests, as inferred from past behavior, are predictive of future behavior.

Let us consider every user in our dataset and any retweets they produce. When a user u emits a new retweet, we define her interests Iu as the set of all memes about which she has tweeted up to that moment. We also collect the set M0 of memes associated with the new retweet. The n most recent posts across all users prior to the new retweet are considered as a set of potential candidates that might have been retweeted, but were not. The corresponding sets of memes M1, M2, …, Mn are recorded (n = 10). We compute the similarity sim(M0, Iu), sim(M1, Iu), …, sim(Mn, Iu) between the user interests and the actual and candidate posts, and recover the conditional probability P(retweet(u, M)|sim(M, Iu)) that u retweets a post with memes M given the similarity between the memes and her user interests. We turn to the Maximum Information Path similarity measure31, 32 that considers shared memes but discounts the more common ones:


where x is a meme and f(x) the proportion of messages about x.

Fig. 3 shows that users are more likely to retweet memes about which they posted in the past (Pearson correlation coefficient ρ = 0.98). This suggests that memory is an important ingredient for a model of meme competition, and we explicitly take this aspect into account in the model presented below.

Figure 3: Relationship between the probability of retweeting a message and its similarity to the user interests, inferred from prior posting behavior.


Full size image (103 KB)


Figures/tables index


Empirical regularities

In Fig. 4 we observe several regularities in the empirical data. We first consider meme lifetime, defined as the maximum number of consecutive time units in which posts about the meme are observed; meme popularity, defined as the number of users per day who tweet about a meme, measured over a given time period; and user activity, defined as the number of messages per day posted by a user, measured over a time period. These three quantities all display long-tailed distributions (Fig. 4(a,b,c)). The excellent collapse of the curves demonstrates that the distributions are robust even if measured over different time units or observed over different periods of time. We further measure the breadth of user attention, defined earlier through the meme entropy. Although the entropy distribution is peaked, some users have broad attention while others are very focused (Fig. 4(d)). This distribution is also robust with respect to different periods of time.

Figure 4: Empirical regularities in Twitter data.   (click here for graphic illustration)


(a) Probability distribution of the lifetime of a meme using hours (red circles), days (blue squares), and weeks (green triangles) as time units. In the plot, units are converted into hours. Since the distributions are well approximated by a power law, we can align the curves by rescaling the y-axis by λ–α, where λ is the ratio of the time units (e.g., λ = 24 for rescaling days into hours) and α ≈ 2.5 is the exponent of the power law (via maximum likelihood estimation33). This demonstrates that the shape of the lifetime distribution is not an artifact of the time unit chosen to define the lifetime. (b) Complementary cumulative probability distribution of the popularity of a meme, measured by the total number of users per day who have used that meme. This and the following measures were performed daily (filled red circles), weekly (filled blue squares), and monthly (filled green triangles). (c) Complementary cumulative probability distribution of user activity, measured by the number of messages per day posted by a user. (d) Probability distribution of breadth of user attention (entropy), based on the memes tweeted by a user. Note that the larger the number of posts produced, the smaller the non-zero entropy values recorded for users who focus on a small set of memes. This explains why the distributions for longer periods of time extend further to the left.

Full size image (278 KB)


Figures/tables index


All of these empirical findings point to extremely heterogenous behaviors; some memes are extremely successful (popular and persistent), while the great majority die quickly. A small fraction of memes therefore account for the great majority of all posts. Likewise, a small fraction of users account for most of the traffic. These heterogeneities can in principle be attributed to a variety of causes. The broad distributions of meme popularity could result from a diversity in some intrinsic meme value, with “important” memes attracting more attention. Long-lived memes might be sustained exogenously by traditional media and real-world events. User activity and breadth of attention distributions could be a reflection of innate behavioral differences. What is, then, a minimal set of assumptions necessary to interpret this empirical data? One way to tackle this question is to start from a minimalist model of information spreading that assumes none of the above externalities. In particular we will explore to what extent the statistical features of memes and users can be accounted by the limited attention capacity of the users coupled with the heterogeneity of their social connections.

Model description

Our basic model assumes a frozen network of agents. An agent maintains a time-ordered list of posts, each about a specific meme. Multiple posts may be about the same meme. Users pay attention to these memes only. Asynchronously and with uniform probability, each agent can generate a post about a new meme or forward some of the posts from the list, transmitting the corresponding memes to neighboring agents. Neighbors in turn pay attention to a newly received meme by placing it at the top of their lists. To account for the empirical observation that past behavior affects what memes the user will spread in the future, we include a memory mechanism that allows agents to develop endogenous interests and focus. Finally, we model limited attention by allowing posts to survive in an agent’s list or memory only for a finite amount of time. When a post is forgotten, its associated meme become less represented. A meme is forgotten when the last post carrying that meme disappears from the user’s list or memory. Note that list and memory work like first-in-first-out rather than priority queues, as proposed in models of bursty human activity34. In the context of single-agent behavior, our memory mechanism is reminiscent of the classic Yule-Simon model∼\cite{yule-simon43, Cattuto3001200744}.

The retweet model we propose is illustrated in Fig. 5. Agents interact on a directed social network of friends/followers. Each user node is equipped with a screen where received memes are recorded, and a memory with records of posted memes. An edge from a friend to a follower indicates that the friend’s memes can be read on the follower’s screen (#x and #y in Fig. 5(a) appear on the screen in Fig. 5(b)). At each step, an agent is selected randomly to post memes to neighbors. The agent may post about a new meme with probability pn (#z in Fig. 5(b)). The posted meme immediately appears at the top of the memory. Otherwise, the agent reads posts about existing memes from the screen. Each post may attract the user’s attention with probability pr (the user pays attention to #x, #y in Fig. 5(c)). Then the agent either retweets the post (#x in Fig. 5(c)) with probability 1 − pm, or tweets about a meme chosen from memory (#v triggered by #y in Fig. 5(c)) with probability pm. Any post in memory has equal opportunities to be selected, therefore memes that appear more frequently in memory are more likely to be propagated (the memory has two posts about #v in Fig. 5(d)). To model limited user attention, both screen and memory have a finite capacity, which is the time in which a post remains in an agent’s screen or memory. For all agents, posts are removed after one time unit, which simulates a unit of real time, corresponding to Nu steps where Nu is the number of agents. If people use the system once weekly on average, the time unit corresponds to a week.

Figure 5: Illustration of the meme diffusion model.    (click here for graphic illustration)

Each user has a memory and a screen, both with limited size. (a) Memes are propagated along follower links. (b) The memes received by a user appear on the screen. With probability pn, the user posts a new meme, which is stored in memory. (c) Otherwise, with probability 1 – pn, the user scans the screen. Each meme x in the screen catches the user’s attention with probability pr. Then with probability pm a random meme from memory is triggered, or x is retweeted with probability 1 – pm. (d) All memes posted by the user are also stored in memory.

Full size image (373 KB)


Figures/tables index


Simulation results

The model has three parameters: pn regulates the amount of novelty that enters the system (number of cascades), pr determines the overall retweet activity (size of cascades), and pm accounts for individual focus (diversity of user interests). We estimated all three directly from the empirical data (see Methods).

The social network underlying the meme diffusion process is a critical component of the model. To obtain a network of manageable size while preserving the structure of the actual social network, we sampled a directed graph with 105 nodes from the Twitter follower network (details in Methods). The nodes correspond to a subset of the users who generated the posts in our empirical data. To evaluate the predictions of our model, we compare them with empirical data that includes only the retweets of the same subset of users. To study the role played by the network structure in the meme diffusion process, we also simulated the model on a random Erdös-Rényi (ER) network with the same number of nodes and edges. As shown in Fig. 6, the model captures the main features of the empirical distributions of meme lifetime and popularity, user activity, and breadth of user attention. The comparison with the corresponding distributions generated using the ER network shows that in general, the heterogeneity of the observed quantities is greatly reduced when memes spread on a random network. This is not unexpected. Consider for example meme popularity (Fig. 6(b)); the real social network has a broad (scale free, not shown) distribution of degree, with a consistent number of hub users who have a large number of followers. Memes spread by these users are likely to achieve greater popularity. This does not happen in the ER network where the degree distribution is narrow (Poissonian). The difference observed in the distribution of breadth of user attention, for both low and high entropy values (Fig. 6(d)), may be explained by the heterogeneity in the number of friends. Users with few friends may have low breadth of attention while those with many friends are exposed to many memes and thus may exhibit greater entropy.

To study the role played by the network structure in the meme diffusion process, we simulate the model on the sampled follower network (solid black line) and a random network (dashed red line). Both networks have 105 nodes and about 3 × 106 edges. (a) The definition of lifetime uses the week as time unit. (b,c,d) Meme popularity, user activity, and user entropy data are based on weekly measures.

Full size image (264 KB)


Figures/tables index


The second key ingredient of our model is the competition among memes for limited user attention. To evaluate the role of such a competition on the meme diffusion process, we simulated variations of the model with stronger or weaker competition. This was accomplished by tuning the length tw of the time window in which posts are retained in an agent’s screen or memory. A shorter time window (tw < 1) leads to less attention and thus increased competition, while a longer time window (tw > 1) allows for attention to more memes and thus less competition. As we can observe in Fig. 7, stronger competition (tw = 0.1) fails to reproduce the large observed number of long-lived memes (Fig. 7(a)). Weaker competition (tw = 5), on the other hand, cannot generate extremely popular memes (Fig. 7(b)) nor extremely active users (Fig. 7(c)).

Figure 7: Evaluation of model by comparison of simulations with empirical data (same panels and symbols as in Fig. 4).

To study the role of meme competition, we simulate the model on the sampled follower network with different levels of competition; posts are removed from screen and memory after tw time units. We compare the standard model (tw = 1, solid black line) against versions with less competition (tw = 5, dot-dashed magenta line) and more competition (tw = 0.1, dashed red line). (a) The definition of lifetime uses the week as time unit. (b,c,d) Meme popularity, user activity, and user entropy data are based on weekly measures.

Full size image (289 KB)


Figures/tables index

We also simulated our model without user interests, by setting pm = 0. The most noticeable difference in this case is the lack of highly focused individuals. Users have no memory of their past behavior, and can only pay attention to memes from their friends. As a result, the model fails to account for low entropy individuals (not shown but similar to the random network case in Fig. 6(d)).








Author information


The present findings demonstrate that the combination of social network structure and competition for finite user attention is a sufficient condition for the emergence of broad diversity in meme popularity, lifetime, and user activity. This is a remarkable result: one can account for the often-reported long-tailed distributions of topic popularity and lifetime7, 12, 14, 29 without having to assume exogenous factors such as intrinsic meme appeal, user influence, or external events. The only source of heterogeneity in our model is the social network; users differ in their audience size but not in the quality of their messages.

Our model is inspired by the long tradition that represents information spreading as an epidemic process, where infection is passed along the edges of the underlying social network35, 36, 37, 7, 28, 12.

In the context of social media, several authors explored the temporal evolution of popularity. Wu and Huberman8 studied the decay in news popularity. They showed that temporal patterns of collective attention are well described by a multiplicative process with a single novelty factor. While the decay in popularity is attributed to competition for attention, the underlying mechanism is not modeled explicitly. Crane and Sornette10 introduced a model to describe the exogenous and endogenous bursts of attention toward a video, by combining an epidemic spreading process with a forgetting mechanism. Hogg and Lerman38 proposed a stochastic model to predict the popularity of a news story via the intrinsic interest of the story and the rates at which users find it directly and through friends. These models describe the popularity of a single piece of information, and are therefore unsuitable to capture the competition for our collective attention among multiple simultaneous information epidemics. Although recent epidemiological models have started considering the simultaneous spread of competing strains39, 40, our framework is the first attempt to deal with a virtually unbounded number of new “epidemics” that are continuously injected into the system. A closer analogy to our approach is perhaps provided by neutral models of ecosystems, where individuals (posts) belonging to different species (memes) produce offspring in an environment (our collective attention) that can sustain only a limited number of individuals. At every generation, individuals belonging to new species enter the ecosystem while as many individuals die as needed to maintain the sustainability threshold41.

Since Simon’s seminal paper4, the economy of attention has been an enormously popular notion, yet it has always been assumed implicitly and never put to the test. Our model provides a first attempt to focus explicitly on mechanisms of competition, and to evaluate the quantitative effects of making attention more scarce or abundant.

Our results do not constitute a proof that exogenous features, like intrinsic values of memes, play no role in determining their popularity. However we have shown that at the statistical level it is not necessary to invoke external explanations for the observed global dynamics of memes. This appears as an arresting conclusion that makes information epidemics quite different from the basic modeling and conceptual framework of biological epidemics. While the intrinsic features of viruses and their adaptation to hosts are extremely relevant in determining the winning strains, in the information world the limited time and attention of human behavior are sufficient to generate a complex information landscape and define a wide range of different meme spreading patterns. This calls for a major revision of many concepts commonly used in the modeling and characterization of meme diffusion and opens the path to different frameworks for the analysis of competition among ideas and strategies for the optimization/suppression of their spread.








Author information


The data analyzed in this paper was obtained through Twitter’s public APIs. We collected more than 120 millions retweets from October 2010 to January 2011, involving 12.5 million distinct users and 1.3 million hashtags. Each post contains information about who generated and who retweeted it. As expected in a social network, the follower graph has scale-free degree distributions.

Due to the size of the empirical follower network, we sampled a manageable subset for our simulations. The sampling procedure was a random walk with occasional restarts from random locations (teleportation factor 0.15). Though no sampling method is perfect, the modified random walk is efficient in terms of API queries and reproduces the salient topological features of the sampled network42. The sampled network has 105 nodes and about 3×106 edges. The empirical retweets generated by the users in the sample display trends similar to those from the entire dataset, therefore we expect the model predictions to be consistent not only with the sample but also with the full dataset.

The parameter pn characterizes the probability of tweeting about a new meme. To estimate this parameter from the empirical data, we examine whether each hashtag has been observed in previous time units (weeks). The proportion of posts with new hashtags is approximately 0.45 ± 0.05. We thus set pn = 0.45 for all the simulations. For each simulation — standard model, model with underlying random network, and models with strong and weak competition — the parameter pr is tuned to capture the average number of posted memes per user per unit time (Table 1). Finally, the parameter pm represents the proportion of all memes tweeted by an individual that match the content of the memory. To estimate it from the empirical data, we compare each hashtag with those produced by a user in the previous time unit (week). Using the average value across all users (0.4 ± 0.01) we set pm = 0.4.


What Defines a Meme?

Our world is a place where information can behave like human genes and ideas can replicate, mutate and evolve
By James Gleick, Smithsonian magazine, May 2011,

What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions,” Richard Dawkins declared in 1986. Already one of the world’s foremost evolutionary biologists, he had caught the spirit of a new age. The cells of an organism are nodes in a richly interwoven communications network, transmitting and receiving, coding and decoding. Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between organism and environment. “If you want to understand life,” Dawkins wrote, “don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.”
We have become surrounded by information technology; our furniture includes iPods and plasma displays, and our skills include texting and Googling. But our capacity to understand the role of information has been sorely taxed. “TMI,” we say. Stand back, however, and the past does come back into focus.
The rise of information theory aided and abetted a new view of life. The genetic code—no longer a mere metaphor—was being deciphered. Scientists spoke grandly of the biosphere: an entity composed of all the earth’s life-forms, teeming with information, replicating and evolving. And biologists, having absorbed the methods and vocabulary of communications science, went further to make their own contributions to the understanding of information itself.
Jacques Monod, the Parisian biologist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1965 for working out the role of messenger RNA in the transfer of genetic information, proposed an analogy: just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an “abstract kingdom” rises above the biosphere. The denizens of this kingdom? Ideas.
“Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms,” he wrote. “Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.”
Ideas have “spreading power,” he noted—“infectivity, as it were”—and some more than others. An example of an infectious idea might be a religious ideology that gains sway over a large group of people. The American neurophysiologist Roger Sperry had put forward a similar notion several years earlier, arguing that ideas are “just as real” as the neurons they inhabit. Ideas have power, he said:
Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet.
Monod added, “I shall not hazard a theory of the selection of ideas.” There was no need. Others were willing.
Dawkins made his own jump from the evolution of genes to the evolution of ideas. For him the starring role belongs to the replicator, and it scarcely matters whether replicators were made of nucleic acid. His rule is “All life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.” Wherever there is life, there must be replicators. Perhaps on other worlds replicators could arise in a silicon-based chemistry—or in no chemistry at all.
What would it mean for a replicator to exist without chemistry? “I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet,” Dawkins proclaimed near the end of his first book, The Selfish Gene, in 1976. “It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.” That “soup” is human culture; the vector of transmission is language, and the spawning ground is the brain.
For this bodiless replicator itself, Dawkins proposed a name. He called it the meme, and it became his most memorable invention, far more influential than his selfish genes or his later proselytizing against religiosity. “Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation,” he wrote. They compete with one another for limited resources: brain time or bandwidth. They compete most of all for attention. For example:
Ideas. Whether an idea arises uniquely or reappears many times, it may thrive in the meme pool or it may dwindle and vanish. The belief in God is an example Dawkins offers—an ancient idea, replicating itself not just in words but in music and art. The belief that Earth orbits the Sun is no less a meme, competing with others for survival. (Truth may be a helpful quality for a meme, but it is only one among many.)
Tunes. This tune has spread for centuries across several continents.
Catchphrases. One text snippet, “What hath God wrought?” appeared early and spread rapidly in more than one medium. Another, “Read my lips,” charted a peculiar path through late 20th-century America. “Survival of the fittest” is a meme that, like other memes, mutates wildly (“survival of the fattest”; “survival of the sickest”; “survival of the fakest”; “survival of the twittest”).
Images. In Isaac Newton’s lifetime, no more than a few thousand people had any idea what he looked like, even though he was one of England’s most famous men. Yet now millions of people have quite a clear idea—based on replicas of copies of rather poorly painted portraits. Even more pervasive and indelible are the smile of Mona Lisa, The Scream of Edvard Munch and the silhouettes of various fictional extraterrestrials. These are memes, living a life of their own, independent of any physical reality. “This may not be what George Washington looked like then,” a tour guide was overheard saying of the Gilbert Stuart portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “but this is what he looks like now.” Exactly.
Memes emerge in brains and travel outward, establishing beachheads on paper and celluloid and silicon and anywhere else information can go. They are not to be thought of as elementary particles but as organisms. The number three is not a meme; nor is the color blue, nor any simple thought, any more than a single nucleotide can be a gene. Memes are complex units, distinct and memorable—units with staying power.
Also, an object is not a meme. The hula hoop is not a meme; it is made of plastic, not of bits. When this species of toy spread worldwide in a mad epidemic in 1958, it was the product, the physical manifestation, of a meme, or memes: the craving for hula hoops; the swaying, swinging, twirling skill set of hula-hooping. The hula hoop itself is a meme vehicle. So, for that matter, is each human hula hooper—a strikingly effective meme vehicle, in the sense neatly explained by the philosopher Daniel Dennett: “A wagon with spoked wheels carries not only grain or freight from place to place; it carries the brilliant idea of a wagon with spoked wheels from mind to mind.” Hula hoopers did that for the hula hoop’s memes—and in 1958 they found a new transmission vector, broadcast television, sending its messages immeasurably faster and farther than any wagon. The moving image of the hula hooper seduced new minds by hundreds, and then by thousands, and then by millions. The meme is not the dancer but the dance.
For most of our biological history memes existed fleetingly; their main mode of transmission was the one called “word of mouth.” Lately, however, they have managed to adhere in solid substance: clay tablets, cave walls, paper sheets. They achieve longevity through our pens and printing presses, magnetic tapes and optical disks. They spread via broadcast towers and digital networks. Memes may be stories, recipes, skills, legends or fashions. We copy them, one person at a time. Alternatively, in Dawkins’ meme-centered perspective, they copy themselves.
“I believe that, given the right conditions, replicators automatically band together to create systems, or machines, that carry them around and work to favor their continued replication,” he wrote. This was not to suggest that memes are conscious actors; only that they are entities with interests that can be furthered by natural selection. Their interests are not our interests. “A meme,” Dennett says, “is an information-packet with attitude.” When we speak of fighting for a principle or dying for an idea, we may be more literal than we know.
Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor….Rhyme and rhythm help people remember bits of text. Or: rhyme and rhythm help bits of text get remembered. Rhyme and rhythm are qualities that aid a meme’s survival, just as strength and speed aid an animal’s. Patterned language has an evolutionary advantage. Rhyme, rhythm and reason—for reason, too, is a form of pattern. I was promised on a time to have reason for my rhyme; from that time unto this season, I received nor rhyme nor reason.
Like genes, memes have effects on the wide world beyond themselves. In some cases (the meme for making fire; for wearing clothes; for the resurrection of Jesus) the effects can be powerful indeed. As they broadcast their influence on the world, memes thus influence the conditions affecting their own chances of survival. The meme or memes comprising Morse code had strong positive feedback effects. Some memes have evident benefits for their human hosts (“Look before you leap,” knowledge of CPR, belief in hand washing before cooking), but memetic success and genetic success are not the same. Memes can replicate with impressive virulence while leaving swaths of collateral damage—patent medicines and psychic surgery, astrology and satanism, racist myths, superstitions and (a special case) computer viruses. In a way, these are the most interesting—the memes that thrive to their hosts’ detriment, such as the idea that suicide bombers will find their reward in heaven.
Memes could travel wordlessly even before language was born. Plain mimicry is enough to replicate knowledge—how to chip an arrowhead or start a fire. Among animals, chimpanzees and gorillas are known to acquire behaviors by imitation. Some species of songbirds learn their songs, or at least song variants, after hearing them from neighboring birds (or, more recently, from ornithologists with audio players). Birds develop song repertoires and song dialects—in short, they exhibit a birdsong culture that predates human culture by eons. These special cases notwithstanding, for most of human history memes and language have gone hand in glove. (Clichés are memes.) Language serves as culture’s first catalyst. It supersedes mere imitation, spreading knowledge by abstraction and encoding.
Perhaps the analogy with disease was inevitable. Before anyone understood anything of epidemiology, its language was applied to species of information. An emotion can be infectious, a tune catchy, a habit contagious. “From look to look, contagious through the crowd / The panic runs,” wrote the poet James Thomson in 1730. Lust, likewise, according to Milton: “Eve, whose eye darted contagious fire.” But only in the new millennium, in the time of global electronic transmission, has the identification become second nature. Ours is the age of virality: viral education, viral marketing, viral e-mail and video and networking. Researchers studying the Internet itself as a medium—crowdsourcing, collective attention, social networking and resource allocation—employ not only the language but also the mathematical principles of epidemiology.
One of the first to use the terms “viral text” and “viral sentences” seems to have been a reader of Dawkins named Stephen Walton of New York City, corresponding in 1981 with the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. Thinking logically—perhaps in the mode of a computer—Walton proposed simple self-replicating sentences along the lines of “Say me!” “Copy me!” and “If you copy me, I’ll grant you three wishes!” Hofstadter, then a columnist for Scientific American, found the term “viral text” itself to be even catchier.
Well, now, Walton’s own viral text, as you can see here before your eyes, has managed to commandeer the facilities of a very powerful host—an entire magazine and printing press and distribution service. It has leapt aboard and is now—even as you read this viral sentence—propagating itself madly throughout the ideosphere!
Hofstadter gaily declared himself infected by the meme meme.
One source of resistance—or at least unease—was the shoving of us humans toward the wings. It was bad enough to say that a person is merely a gene’s way of making more genes. Now humans are to be considered as vehicles for the propagation of memes, too. No one likes to be called a puppet. Dennett summed up the problem this way: “I don’t know about you, but I am not initially attracted by the idea of my brain as a sort of dung heap in which the larvae of other people’s ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational diaspora…. Who’s in charge, according to this vision—we or our memes?”
He answered his own question by reminding us that, like it or not, we are seldom “in charge” of our own minds. He might have quoted Freud; instead he quoted Mozart (or so he thought): “In the night when I cannot sleep, thoughts crowd into my mind…. Whence and how do they come? I do not know and I have nothing to do with it.”
Later Dennett was informed that this well-known quotation was not Mozart’s after all. It had taken on a life of its own; it was a fairly successful meme.
For anyone taken with the idea of memes, the landscape was changing faster than Dawkins had imagined possible in 1976, when he wrote, “The computers in which memes live are human brains.” By 1989, the time of the second edition of The Selfish Gene, having become an adept programmer himself, he had to amend that: “It was obviously predictable that manufactured electronic computers, too, would eventually play host to self-replicating patterns of information.” Information was passing from one computer to another “when their owners pass floppy discs around,” and he could see another phenomenon on the near horizon: computers connected in networks. “Many of them,” he wrote, “are literally wired up together in electronic mail exchange…. It is a perfect milieu for self-replicating programs to flourish.” Indeed, the Internet was in its birth throes. Not only did it provide memes with a nutrient-rich culture medium, it also gave wings to the idea of memes. Meme itself quickly became an Internet buzzword. Awareness of memes fostered their spread.
A notorious example of a meme that could not have emerged in pre-Internet culture was the phrase “jumped the shark.” Loopy self-reference characterized every phase of its existence. To jump the shark means to pass a peak of quality or popularity and begin an irreversible decline. The phrase was thought to have been used first in 1985 by a college student named Sean J. Connolly, in reference to an episode of the television series “Happy Days” in which the character Fonzie (Henry Winkler), on water skies, jumps over a shark. The origin of the phrase requires a certain amount of explanation without which it could not have been initially understood. Perhaps for that reason, there is no recorded usage until 1997, when Connolly’s roommate, Jon Hein, registered the domain name jumptheshark.com and created a web site devoted to its promotion. The web site soon featured a list of frequently asked questions:
Q. Did “jump the shark” originate from this web site, or did you create the site to capitalize on the phrase?
A. This site went up December 24, 1997, and gave birth to the phrase “jump the shark.” As the site continues to grow in popularity, the term has become more commonplace. The site is the chicken, the egg and now a Catch-22.
It spread to more traditional media in the next year; Maureen Dowd devoted a column to explaining it in the New York Times in 2001; in 2002 the same newspaper’s “On Language” columnist, William Safire, called it “the popular culture’s phrase of the year”; soon after that, people were using the phrase in speech and in print without self-consciousness—no quotation marks or explanation—and eventually, inevitably, various cultural observers asked, “Has ‘jump the shark’ jumped the shark?” Like any good meme, it spawned mutations. The “jumping the shark” entry in Wikipedia advised in 2009, “See also: jumping the couch; nuking the fridge.”
Is this science? In his 1983 column, Hofstadter proposed the obvious memetic label for such a discipline: memetics. The study of memes has attracted researchers from fields as far apart as computer science and microbiology. In bioinformatics, chain letters are an object of study. They are memes; they have evolutionary histories. The very purpose of a chain letter is replication; whatever else a chain letter may say, it embodies one message: Copy me. One student of chain-letter evolution, Daniel W. VanArsdale, listed many variants, in chain letters and even earlier texts: “Make seven copies of it exactly as it is written” (1902); “Copy this in full and send to nine friends” (1923); “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life” (Revelation 22:19). Chain letters flourished with the help of a new 19th-century technology: “carbonic paper,” sandwiched between sheets of writing paper in stacks. Then carbon paper made a symbiotic partnership with another technology, the typewriter. Viral outbreaks of chain letters occurred all through the early 20th century. Two subsequent technologies, when their use became widespread, provided orders-of-magnitude boosts in chain-letter fecundity: photocopying (c. 1950) and e-mail (c. 1995).
Inspired by a chance conversation on a hike in the Hong Kong mountains, information scientists Charles H. Bennett from IBM in New York and Ming Li and Bin Ma from Ontario, Canada, began an analysis of a set of chain letters collected during the photocopier era. They had 33, all variants of a single letter, with mutations in the form of misspellings, omissions and transposed words and phrases. “These letters have passed from host to host, mutating and evolving,” they reported in 2003.
Like a gene, their average length is about 2,000 characters. Like a potent virus, the letter threatens to kill you and induces you to pass it on to your “friends and associates”—some variation of this letter has probably reached millions of people. Like an inheritable trait, it promises benefits for you and the people you pass it on to. Like genomes, chain letters undergo natural selection and sometimes parts even get transferred between coexisting “species.”
Reaching beyond these appealing metaphors, the three researchers set out to use the letters as a “test bed” for algorithms used in evolutionary biology. The algorithms were designed to take the genomes of various modern creatures and work backward, by inference and deduction, to reconstruct their phylogeny—their evolutionary trees. If these mathematical methods worked with genes, the scientists suggested, they should work with chain letters, too. In both cases the researchers were able to verify mutation rates and relatedness measures.
Still, most of the elements of culture change and blur too easily to qualify as stable replicators. They are rarely as neatly fixed as a sequence of DNA. Dawkins himself emphasized that he had never imagined founding anything like a new science of memetics. A peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics came to life in 1997—published online, naturally—and then faded away after eight years partly spent in self-conscious debate over status, mission and terminology. Even compared with genes, memes are hard to mathematize or even to define rigorously. So the gene-meme analogy causes uneasiness and the genetics-memetics analogy even more.
Genes at least have a grounding in physical substance. Memes are abstract, intangible and unmeasurable. Genes replicate with near-perfect fidelity, and evolution depends on that: some variation is essential, but mutations need to be rare. Memes are seldom copied exactly; their boundaries are always fuzzy, and they mutate with a wild flexibility that would be fatal in biology. The term “meme” could be applied to a suspicious cornucopia of entities, from small to large. For Dennett, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (quoted above) were “clearly” a meme, along with Homer’s Odyssey (or at least the idea of the Odyssey), the wheel, anti-Semitism and writing. “Memes have not yet found their Watson and Crick,” said Dawkins; “they even lack their Mendel.”
Yet here they are. As the arc of information flow bends toward ever greater connectivity, memes evolve faster and spread farther. Their presence is felt if not seen in herd behavior, bank runs, informational cascades and financial bubbles. Diets rise and fall in popularity, their very names becoming catchphrases—the South Beach Diet and the Atkins Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, the Cookie Diet and the Drinking Man’s Diet all replicating according to a dynamic about which the science of nutrition has nothing to say. Medical practice, too, experiences “surgical fads” and “iatro-epidemics”—epidemics caused by fashions in treatment—like the iatro-epidemic of children’s tonsillectomies that swept the United States and parts of Europe in the mid-20th century. Some false memes spread with disingenuous assistance, like the apparently unkillable notion that Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii. And in cyberspace every new social network becomes a new incubator of memes. Making the rounds of Facebook in the summer and fall of 2010 was a classic in new garb:
Sometimes I Just Want to Copy Someone Else’s Status, Word for Word, and See If They Notice.
Then it mutated again, and in January 2011 Twitter saw an outbreak of:
One day I want to copy someone’s Tweet word for word and see if they notice.
By then one of the most popular of all Twitter hashtags (the “hashtag” being a genetic—or, rather, memetic—marker) was simply the word “#Viral.”
In the competition for space in our brains and in the culture, the effective combatants are the messages. The new, oblique, looping views of genes and memes have enriched us. They give us paradoxes to write on Möbius strips. “The human world is made of stories, not people,” writes the novelist David Mitchell. “The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed.” Margaret Atwood writes: “As with all knowledge, once you knew it, you couldn’t imagine how it was that you hadn’t known it before. Like stage magic, knowledge before you knew it took place before your very eyes, but you were looking elsewhere.” Nearing death, John Updike reflected on
A life poured into words—apparent waste intended to preserve the thing consumed.
Fred Dretske, a philosopher of mind and knowledge, wrote in 1981: “In the beginning there was information. The word came later.” He added this explanation: “The transition was achieved by the development of organisms with the capacity for selectively exploiting this information in order to survive and perpetuate their kind.” Now we might add, thanks to Dawkins, that the transition was achieved by the information itself, surviving and perpetuating its kind and selectively exploiting organisms.
Most of the biosphere cannot see the infosphere; it is invisible, a parallel universe humming with ghostly inhabitants. But they are not ghosts to us—not anymore. We humans, alone among the earth’s organic creatures, live in both worlds at once. It is as though, having long coexisted with the unseen, we have begun to develop the needed extrasensory perception. We are aware of the many species of information. We name their types sardonically, as though to reassure ourselves that we understand: urban myths and zombie lies. We keep them alive in air-conditioned server farms. But we cannot own them. When a jingle lingers in our ears, or a fad turns fashion upside down, or a hoax dominates the global chatter for months and vanishes as swiftly as it came, who is master and who is slave?

Adapted from The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, by James Gleick. Copyright © 2011 by James Gleick. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
James Gleick is the author of Chaos: Making a New Science, among other books. Illustrator Stuart Bradford lives in San Rafael, California.

Find this article at:


Corporate America, meet ‘Generation C’ by Brian Solis

Washington Post, June 28 2012

Brian Solis is the author of The End of Business as Usual. He is also a principal analyst at Altimeter Group, a research based advisory firm in San Francisco where he studies the impact of new media on business and consumer behavior.


But, while these people may seem distracted, they are, in fact, very much a part of the occasion. Multitasking is a way of life for them, but there’s something more to it than just a love affair with smartphones and tablets. These “always on” audiences share real-world experiences as they happen with friends and acquaintances who, in turn, respond in real time.

This means word-of-mouth has evolved from one-to-one to one-to-many conversations. Shared experiences become a formidable currency in the networked economy where the influence of an individual is significantly augmented. And, it’s this influence that changes the game for how consumers and organizations connect in the future.

In the age of social media, we are witnessing a C-change (as in “C” for customer) in the balance of power between consumers and businesses. This increasingly empowered generation of connected customers, which I often refer to as Generation-C, is changing the face of engagement and is re-writing the book for how businesses market and serve them in the future.

Today, customers realize that social networks give them influence over how other consumers view a company and they are learning how to influence companies to listen, respond and resolve problems directly. At the center of this evolving customer landscape are shared experiences. People share just about everything and, whether we believe it or not, the activity around these shared experiences influences the impressions and behavior of other consumers in social networks to varying effects.

Full text

You’re at a concert and you notice nearly everyone in the audience is either looking down at their phone or holding it up in the air. A question slowly dawns on you: “What’s the point?”

Going to an event is about being in the moment and enjoying the experience to the fullest, right?


But, while these people may seem distracted, they are, in fact, very much a part of the occasion. Multitasking is a way of life for them, but there’s something more to it than just a love affair with smartphones and tablets. These “always on” audiences share real-world experiences as they happen with friends and acquaintances who, in turn, respond in real time.

This means word-of-mouth has evolved from one-to-one to one-to-many conversations. Shared experiences become a formidable currency in the networked economy where the influence of an individual is significantly augmented. And, it’s this influence that changes the game for how consumers and organizations connect in the future.

In the age of social media, we are witnessing a C-change (as in “C” for customer) in the balance of power between consumers and businesses. This increasingly empowered generation of connected customers, which I often refer to as Generation-C, is changing the face of engagement and is re-writing the book for how businesses market and serve them in the future.

Think about this for a moment. Have you ever noticed that it’s almost always social media experts who have problems with companies or products on Twitter? Here’s why, they figured out that, by leaning on the reach and volume of their networks, they can make a difference. They can also jump ahead of traditional service queues to earn attention over one-to-one channels. Businesses are more inclined to respond quickly to these types of complaints in an effort to limit the extent of negative sentiment and improve perceptions.

Today, customers realize that social networks give them influence over how other consumers view a company and they are learning how to influence companies to listen, respond and resolve problems directly. At the center of this evolving customer landscape are shared experiences. People share just about everything and, whether we believe it or not, the activity around these shared experiences influences the impressions and behavior of other consumers in social networks to varying effects.

Services such as Klout, Kred, and PeerIndex now measure social media activity and translate it into an “influence” score. This, for better or for worse, introduces a social consumer hierarchy, creating a new standard for consumer marketing and service – and connected consumers know it. A report by my employer, Altimeter Group, titled “The Rise of Digital Influence” takes a look at precisely this phenomenon.

Dissatisfied customers are not the only ones getting attention. Many businesses also take a very important next step, which is to acknowledge happy customers. This form of positive reinforcement serves as a form of “unmarketing” where consumers feel appreciated and are encouraged to share what they love about the business, product and overall experience.

Individuals with the largest, most loyal, or actively engaged networks form a powerful and connected consumer landscape. What they share or don’t share contributes to a collective brand or service experience that, without engagement, is left for the connected audiences to define.

Suddenly, the audience with an audience becomes a formidable foe or ally for any organization. As such, the proactive investment in positive experiences now represents a modern and potentially influential form of consumer marketing and service. But to engage in the new realm of digital influence will take more than tweets or participating social media conversations. Connected audiences demand that marketers and executives alike rethink the entire customer experience before, during, and after transaction. But remember: No amount of responses can fix a broken product or service.

Read more news and ideas on Innovations and Brian Solis on “Digital Darwinism and why brands die.”