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How do memes emerge and proliferate online?

Katie Donnelly

Yesterday in the Public Media 2.0 Showcase, I highlighted the work of two American Graduate students. Yesterday's post highlighted the work of Carl Yussi Pick, who examined examined the issue of political engagement through mobile channels in his paper, Mobile Strategies in Political Communication.

David Norton took on a different subject matter — memes — in his paper, Constructing "Climategate" and Tracking Chatter in an Age of Web n.0. Taking into account the minimal existing literature on memes, Norton's paper aims to "[develop] a conceptual model and theoretical framework for understanding how memes emerge and travel through the networked fabric of cyberspace."

What makes a meme? According to Norton:

Few, if any, theorists have explicitly identified or examined the fundamental ways in which memes often rely upon culturally recognizable, intertextual discourses as vehicles for transmission and reproduction. Successful memes, I contend, often draw upon pre-existing discourses — the culturally shared intertextual matrix — of their potential hosts. In this sense, a discourse may stand a better chance of “going viral” when it: a) references and draws upon the readily-consumable quality of salient tropes, metaphors, narratives, or phraseologies; and b) uniquely encapsulate a well-distilled, unmistakable frame or concept that is reiterated by the meme itself. Thus, a “successful” meme will, in a sense, become a hyperreal phenomenon; the reproductive capacity of a meme largely depends upon its proclivity to reference and be referenced with ease.

Using the 2009 "climategate" meme as an example, Norton tracks the emergence and proliferation of this term across various channels. Interestingly, Norton found that environmentalists who questioned the legitimacy of "climategate" may have unintentionally propelled its development into a meme by taking on the term themselves and making repeated use of its Twitter hashtag, thereby giving fuel to "climategate's" proponents. Norton compiled four time-series datasets that examine the use of "climategate" in tweets, Google search queries, televised news programs and newspaper articles. He found that the use of the term on Twitter preceded its use in all other outlets, suggesting that the meme likely originated there before catching on: first with Google search users and then with mainstream television and print news sources.

Whether every meme can be tracked in a similar way remains to be seen. As Norton writes, "As previously unimagined forms of public expression arise, and innovative forums for discussion take shape, we will need to pioneer theoretical frameworks, descriptive models, and analytic methods that can better track the ebb and flow of online chatter, and assess the civic impact of participatory, synchronous, and multimodal technologies."

The Center would like to congratulate these authors on their excellent contributions to the field. Please stay tuned for more information on these projects!