Think Viral, Act Tribal, Part II: What, Why, and How Memes Propagate
A while back I wrote down some ideas about viral marketing prompted by a meeting with an entrepreneur who was having some trouble executing a campaign. Today, I came across a really interesting research paper, "Memes and affinities: cultural replication and literacy education", by Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear, presented in November 2005 at the National Reading Conference annual meeting. The paper is here: http://www.geocities.com/c.lankshear/memes2.pdf.
This paper examines a number of successful pop-culture memes from the past few years and, building on past research and this up-to-date examination, suggests a framework and specific guidelines for why and how memes propagate successfully on the Internet.
The authors define success along three dimensions: "replicability", or the fidelity of the meme as it gets passed along; "fecundity", or how quickly and widely it gets spread; and "longevity", or how long it continues to be shared.
They observe three common characteristics of successful memes: they are (my words here) funny, they are hip (the authors call this "rich intertextuality", meaning they cross-reference other things going on in the universe they are part of), and they are odd (the authors call this "anomalous juxtaposition", or as Harold Bloom might have called them, admiringly, "strange").
Further, the authors present a rich categorization scheme (they call it a "typology") for the memes they present, that is useful for helping to brainstorm other ideas for memes that might exhibit desired "results" (again: replicability, fecundity, longevity) to varying degrees.
One interesting property: 18 of the 19 memes they study use at least two forms of media (i.e., not just text).
The authors' angle on this issue is the promotion of critical literacy in new environments. As they write in their conclusion,
Studying online memes that aim at promoting social critique can help educators to rethink conventional approaches to critical literacy that often operate at the level of text analysis without taking sufficient account of the social practices, ideas, affinities, and new forms of social participation that generated the phenomenon under investigation... Well-informed and savvy online meming may well provide students with a fruitful and accessible practice for bringing about positive social changes in the ways people think, and perhaps act towards others.
This observation seems to me to equally applicable in a number of other spheres. I highly recommend this excellent piece.