Symbiotic Memes

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Achieving Longevity in the Memescape

Memes, or culturally shared pieces of media, are passed between people using the available communications methods of the day. The advent, and eventual widespread adoption of the internet has changed the memescape in critical ways, allowing for interactive and highly vivid mediums, new methods of sharing and distribution, and a lasting record. The internet has also sped up the meme digestion rate. Instead of primarily circulating through geographically interconnected networks over a longer period of time, internet memes become universally available as soon as they’re posted. The low time and monetary costs of sharing digital information allow individuals to broadcast memes as far as their networks permit. One-to-many distribution allows for near simultaneous uptake of a meme by the world’s collective consciousness. Once the meme has been distributed, the public processes and divines it’s value, and then moves on to new memes. Most memes that achieve great popularity fall under what I will term “Discrete Memes”. These memes are one-shots, each with unique elements that lend them value. They are characterized by a short term of popularity, experiencing an extremely rapid growth in audience over 1-3 days from when the meme hits critical

mass1 and then seeing a steep drop in the rate of new audience acquisition over a 45 day period before settling at a fraction of the peak audience. However, another form of meme has developed on the internet with a drastically different adoption model. These memes are comprised of a structure or system of features, and a piece of host content. The features can be applied to different pieces of source content to create-semi unique units of the meme. As both the host content and the form gain audience by being combined, I’ve termed these memes “Symbiotic Memes”. Symbiotic meme units have high fecundity compared to discrete meme units. They contain an equation for value with easily substituted variables, guiding audience members to apply the features of the meme in their own style to a piece of content they have personally selected. These new units are distributed by their creators and help to further spread the original meme’s underlying equation. The differences in adoption of symbiotic versus discrete memes can be measured using analytics on searches performed on Google, views on Youtube and wall posts on Facebook. “Ninja Cat” was a discrete meme popularized in September of 2008. It is a video of a cat owner peaking out from around a hallway corner, and each time he peeks out, his cat is sitting still but is a few feet closer to the camera. It does not use the structure or formula of any other meme.

Critical Mass in this case refers to the minimum audience necessary to allow a meme necessary network access to potentially spread widely.
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Figure 1 shows the Youtube page of “Ninja Cat”, displaying it’s 9 million views, and September 10th, 2008 upload date. [Figure 1 – “Ninja Cat Comes Closer While Not Moving!” – Youtube]

Figure 2 shows mentions of “Ninja Cat” on Facebook wall posts over three years, with a large spike in September of 2008.

[Figure 2 – “Ninja Cat” Mentions on Facebook Lexicon in 2007-2009]

Figure 3 shows the same data but expanded. The first marked data point represents the start of widespread mentions of “Ninja Cat” on September 15th, 2008. The second point shows the meme’s peak on September 16th, 2008. The fourth point shows the plateau of mentions as the public finishes digestion on September 19th, 2008. [Figure 3 – “Ninja Car” Mentions on Facebook Lexicon, Detailed]

Figure 4 shows Google Trends data on Google searches for “Ninja Cat”, and displays the rapid increase in searches from nearly zero to nearly 7 times the average number of searches for “Ninja Cat” in 2008, and then settling back down following digestion.

[Figure 4 – Google Trends for “Ninja Cat” in 2008]

Another example of a discrete meme is the video of a fictional breakdancing competion between presidential candidates entitled “Obama and McCain - Dance Off!”, as seen in Figure 5.

[Figure 5 – “Obama and McCain – Dance Off!” - Youtube]

The video features the heads of the candidates superimposed on the heads of professional dancers. The video, while accumulating more than 7 million views, did not provide a clearly distillable structure, stifling the potential for user-generated content in a similar vein. The lack of user created renditions is obvious from the very low number of “video responses” (4) shown in Figure 5. The Facebook Lexicon data [Figure 6] matches that of fellow discrete meme “Ninja Cat” and the Google search data [Figure 7] shows a rapid uptake, a peak, (marked “C”), a steep drop in audience, and finally a plateau in views and mentions almost as low as it’s pre-meme level. [Figure 6 – “Dance Off” Mentions on Facebook for 2008]

[Figure 7 – Google Trends on “Dance Off” for 2008]

Upon a closer look at the Facebook data in Figure 7, we can see the adoption cycle as it proceeds day by day. The point just before the peak shows the proportion of

mentions of “Dance Off” compared to all other words and phrases on Facebook wall posts, represents October 22, 2008, the day before the video was posted to Youtube. The day it was posted, the meme peaked in popularity, and then over a 5-day period returned to the pre-meme level of mentions. [Figure 8 “Dance Off” Mentions on Facebook Lexicon, Detailed]

While “Obama – McCain Dance Off” was highly popular for a short period of time, it failed to provide a structure conducive to user-generated content.

These metrics all show the adoption model for discrete memes, namely a rapid increase in adoption, a peak, and steep decline, and then a low plateau. This differs drastically from adoption model for symbiotic memes. One such meme is LolCats, or “I Can Haz Cheezeburger”, a meme created in early 2007 (Wired 2008). The meme consists of image macros in which in-photo borderless captions in Arial Black or Impact font utilizing a humorous, grammatically erroneous, patois or pigeon English are applied to photographs of cats (Wikipedia: LolCats). The meme has achieved great longevity through it’s easy-to-replicate formula of combining a cat photograph with creative application of the preferred vernacular. Thousands of new units of the meme are created each day, providing great volumes of constantly updated content which tempt audiences to come back for additional exploration of the meme (Wired 2008) This slows the digestion and turnover cycle, leading to a prolonged presence in the memescape. [Figure 9 - “Haz” Mentions on Facebook Lexicon]

Analysis of adoption of “I Can Haz Cheezeburger” reveals the characteristics of symbiotic meme adoption, including steady uptake, a less defined peak, a lack of a steep decline, and a plateau at a greater proportion of the peak then that shown by discrete memes. The presence of a sustained long-tail and the absence of a steep drop-off in audience is especially important, as it implies a lasting presence in the public’s collective consciousness which leads to much greater total audience over time than discrete memes. The Facebook Lexicon data matches that of Google searches for “haz” in the United States (to exclude searches including “haz” as used in other languages, specifically Romanian), showing steady adoption and delayed slow turnover. [Figure 11 – Google Trends for “Haz”]

A second example of a symbiotic meme is the Soulja Boy dance, as illustrated in the instructional dance music video for “Crank That (Soulja Boy), posted on August 2th, 2007, shown here in Figure 12. [Figure 12 – Soulja Boy – How To Crank That - Youtube]

The video shows emerging hip-hop artist Soulja Boy demonstrating how to do the “Soulja Boy” dance he invented. This video provides the framework for creating additional content, either by users demonstrating their own dances, or vidding2 the original song with a new, self-generated video. “Crank That” generated high volumes of user-generated remixes and dance variations, leading to video responses with views as high as 57 million, in the case of the “Crank Dat Soulja Boy Spongebob” video. [Figure 13 - “Crank Dat Soulja Boy Spongebob” – Youtube]

Vidding refers to the practice of creating fan-made music videos by combining songs with video footage, often taken from cult-favorite television shows (Wikipedia: Vidding).
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The symbiotic nature of the meme allowed for user-generated variations, which drove traffic to the original and helped it to escape the trajectory of discrete memes. Facebook Lexicon only charts data as early as September of 2007, a month after the posting of “Crank That”, preventing us from analyzing wall post mentions during the first phase of adoption. Due to the widespread confusion regarding the official name of the song, in Figure 14 I have charted mentions of both “Crank That” and “Crank Dat”, whose data stay closely tied throughout the cycle. Starting in September we can see the prolonged presence of significant mentions, opposed to the rapid drop-off seen in discrete memes. [Figure 14 – “Crank Dat” and “Crank That” Mentions on Facebook Lexicon]

Google Trends data in Figure 15 also shows a much slower decline in searches for “Crank Dat” and “Crank That”.

[Figure 15 – Google Trends data on “Crank Dat” and “Crank That” ]

Upon closer inspection of the first phase of adoption in Figure 16, we can see that the adoption of the meme is more gradual than of discrete memes. The meme sees increases in searches for nearly 4 months before peaking. [Figure 16 – Google Trends data on “Crank Dat” and “Crank That” in 2007]

Detailed analysis of the end of the cycle in Figure 17 shows that the meme took nearly 6 months to bottom out, implying the lasting presence of “Crank Dat/That” in the memescape. [Figure 17 – Google Trends data on “Crank Dat” and “Crank That” in 2008]

Though more examples are necessary to come to confident conclusions, trends in the available data suggest that there are at least two different meme adoption cycles, dependent on the whether the given meme is symbiotic or discrete. Understanding what features allow a meme to sustain its presence in the collective consciousness is critical to designing memes for maximum exposure. By creating memes with symbiotic characteristics, content creators invite users to develop, and eventually distribute their own units of the meme, driving the overarching meme into new networks where it can gain audience. A meme’s original creator may be able to court this user-generation of content by posting their own remixes or new meme units as guides for future interpretation. As media consumption increasingly occurs over on-demand mediums such as the internet, creating content which spawns additional meme units that can assist in infiltration of new audience networks will be critical to achieving popularity. While discrete memes still contain great value, I believe symbiotic memes with generous long-tails are the future of the internet meme economy.

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