How Memes Spread

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“A movement starts because of the social habits of friendship and the strong ties between close acquaintances. It grows because of the habits of a community, and the weak ties that hold neighbourhoods and clans together. And it endures because a movement’s leader gives participants new habits that create a fresh sense of identity and a feeling of ownership” Charles Duhigg

Some fascinating insight here from (friend of ODF) Francesco D’Orazio and Jessica Owens from Face Group, analysing the spread of two of the biggest memes of recent times: Gangnam Style and Harlem Shake. There’s already some good analysis into the development of Harlem Shake and how corporations, and not simply individuals, helped to play a key role in enabling it to take off in the way that it did. But this analysis goes further in defining the different shapes of each meme, and what impact that shape had on their longevity (Gangnam Style lived for longer):

“Whereas Gangnam Style offered a strong top-down narrative with an easily identifiable leader in Psy, Harlem Shake had a more distributed narrative with no real leadership and guidance outside of the format. Consequently it didn’t succeed in creating a ‘habit’ that would outlive the interest from the local and community networks who where the real engine behind this meme”.

There’s some interesting common themes that come out around spikey distribution patterns, how small communities drive virality, how both transcended geography depsite coming from specific geographical areas and subcultures. But there’s some notable differences too including the tricky balance between community and top-down influence:

“It’s a difficult balance for a meme to strike. Community drives shareability but doesn’t give you scale (popularity). Top-down influence drives scale but kills shareability. While shareability is a key requisite of virality, scale is what enables and sustains exponential growth.”

The key lesson? Once again that there is no simple answer, no one strategy, no single technique to how these things happen. But we are learning more about it all the time. Fascinating.

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