Viral Content Sharing Survey Report


Finally, after sneak peeks and status updates, the report is done.

Its a study of why and how people share content online and it explores content type preferences, sharing methods, motivations, reach and frequency.

You can check out the table of contents here.

If you like the report, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.

Here’s a few more sneak peek graphs from the report about the preferences of respondents who frequently read social news sites (like Digg):

And as always, I’d love to hear what you think.

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Multivariate Transmission Rates Part 2

Yesterday I posted on the first of two variables in my proposed multivariate transmission rate formula, expression rate (how many people a seed exposes to a meme) and assimilation rate (how many people exposed to that meme turn into seeds themselves). Today I want to look at two more aspects: multiple exposure assimilation and assimilation threshold.

Multiple exposures to certain memes may increase that meme’s assimilation rate. Just hearing an idea from one friend may not catch your attention or allow the meme to be retained in your memory, but when you hear it from two or more friends that could change.

People are exposed to countless new and competing memes everyday and we clearly don’t assimilate all of them. As the number of competing (exclusive) memes increases, the number of exposures needed to achieve assimilation increases as well.

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Multivariate Transmission Rates Part 1

The concept of a reproduction or transmission rate comes from epidemiology. It is the average number of new infections a person infected with a disease will cause. If this number is over 1 the infected population will grow, if it is below one they will shrink in the long term. It assumes a 0% immunity rate in the general population, meaning everyone exposed to the pathogen will become an infectious case themselves.

In memetics and viral marketing this idea is used to indicate the average number of new people that will become “infected” with a meme as a result of a single seed’s expressions of the meme. However biological contagions differ from memetic ones in that individuals typically have a higher level of immunity to them, you may be exposed to hundreds or thousands of memes everyday, but you will assimilate and spread some of them.

I propose a more useful model is a multivariate transmission rate, that takes into account a number of variables including separate expression rates (the average number of people a seed will expose to the meme) and assimilation rates (the average number of people who, once exposed to the meme will express it to new people themselves).

This model provides a more realistic and granular description of the processes at work and allows us to study areas (like multiple exposures) were memetic viruses and biological ones vary, and I’ll get into exactly that in part 2.

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Why Proverbs and Sayings Go Viral


The Q Document (the source material for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) is a collection of Jesus’s proverbs. Jesus’s own ministry was comprised of 1 to 3 years of short sayings including proverbs and the occasional long-form sermon. The Book of Proverbs is one of the “Three Poetic Books” of the Old Testament. Ecclesiastes 12:9 and 12:10 say:

In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs.

The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.

Clearly the Abrahamic tradition is deeply rooted in proverbs, short concrete sayings that are widely known and repeated, and in the case of the Ministry of Jesus and the Q Document, proverbs evolved into the canonical religious literature of modern Christianity. Proverbs exist as folk knowledge in many cultures and diffuse across cultural and language boundaries with surprising ease as cultures adopt sayings from other communities and other languages.

What is it about the proverb medium that makes it so adept at surviving and evolving?

At their origin, most proverbs operate in an oral environment, and as such they display many of the same mnemonic traits necessary for purely oral retention and transmission such as alliteration, rhyme, and rhythm. They also display many of the content patterns common in other oral traditions including personification, and hyperbole. In fact most orally transmitted epic poems are constructed from “cliche” proverb building blocks, that is short, well-known and concrete sayings. I’ve written about oral tradition before, so I’m more interested in what makes proverbs special among all oral communications.

In a 1995 book titled Aging Families and Use of Proverbs for Values Enrichment Vera R. Jackson proposed that social exchange theory is an appropriate model for understanding why proverbs are transmitted in families and close groups:

Exchange theory suggests that families will continue to do what hey found rewarding in the past. If an individual adopts a believe in a proverb, and receives a certain amount of pleasure (healthy or unhealthy) that individual will be more includes to share the proverb with other family members. Moreover, once there is a family acceptance of a proverb, families are less likely to consider other proverbs outside of those they already believe in.

Social exchange theory’s seminal work is Social Behavior as Exchange by George C. Homans. In it, he describes how social behavior is a form of exchange similar to operant conditioning:

… the more valuable the sentiment or activity the members exchange with one another, the greater the average frequency of interaction of the members.With men, as with pigeons, the greater the reinforcement, the more often is the reinforced behavior emitted. The more cohesive a group, too, the greater the change that members can produce in the behavior of other members in the direction of rendering these activities more valuable.

Like other oral communications including urban legends, slang, and gossip, proverbs often exhibit The Goliath Effect, in that they express folk discontent against structures and identities perceived to be over-powerful and negative. In the article Tensions in Proverbs: More Light on International Understanding Joseph Raymond discusses proverbs as “paremiological revolt”:

To avoid openly criticizing a given authority or cultural pattern, folk take recourse to proverbial expressions which voice personal tensions in a tone of a generalized consent.

The Nazi’s put a great deal of time and energy into using proverbs as weapons against the Jews, and rather than create new phrases, they created artificial evolutionary pressures that favored antisemitic proverbs. Wolfgang Mieder explored the Nazi’s use of proverbs in depth in his 1982 article Proverbs in Nazi Germany: The Promulgation of Anti-Semitism and Stereotypes Through Folklore.

They created collections of existing proverbs that could be spun by the Nazi’s as demonstrating pro-nationalistic ideals, either avoided mentioning Jewish-originated proverbs that had been popular in Germany or labeled them with warnings against their usage. Hitler and other Nazi leaders used these proverbs in speeches and as party slogans, the most well known example being the slogan “common good before individual good.” These collections and uses had the evolutionary effect of selecting for existing proverbs which favored the Reich’s positions.

Proverbs are an ancient and powerfully virulent way of communicating personal, religious, cultural and political ideals that social & viral marketers should be aware of.

What is your favorite proverb?

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How and Why Slang Spreads


Slang is not easy to define exactly, but in an article written by David M. Hummon in 1994 for The Journal of Higher Education a workable definition is presented:

an oral, highly expressive language not accepted as ‘good, formal usage’.

Whereas euphemisms seek to obfuscate and soften unpleasant realities, slang is often used as a shocking way to confront those otherwise taboo topics.

Typically slang begins as a sort of encrypted “in speak” for subcultures, the criminal underground is an oft-used example of this. Many drug nicknames are used so that members of the subculture can talk without being understood by people outside of their group.

Subcultures often create terms to describe things that mainstream society does not have words for, or does not have words conveying specific enough meanings for. The term “baby mama” is an example of this. Based on Jamaican culture, this word implies the mother of someone’s child who is no longer tied to the father of that child. A great discussion of this slang can be found here:

Sometimes a slang term pops into the cultural sphere that is so useful it crawls under the brainskin, no matter the historical stigma implied.

Another function of this “in speak” is that slang helps members of subcultures identify each other quickly and easily, and beyond mere cultural group affiliation a wealth of more granular information about the speaker is conveyed including age, gender, demographics and geography. Members of sub-cultures that have acquired and use group-specific slang gain a sense of belonging and assimilation to the group.

Often much can be learned about the attitudes, beliefs and values of a group by studying its slang. The 1993 book The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech does exactly that and it observes commonalities in New York City slang like:

Few if any slang names denote schools, churches, hospitals and other insitutions in the same neighborhood that were seen as supportive rather than exploitative. Slang sometimes serves a pejorative function in social discourse and may be interpreted as a kind of social criticism by the poor and down-and-out.

Most slang words and phrases are not true neologism, they are not completely new and unique words (though that does happen on occasion). They are more commonly neosemanticisms, that is old words given new meanings. There are a variety of ways slang is created in this fashion, including:

  • Changing the class of a word, like using an adjective in place of an adverb
  • Metaphor: using imagery to designate something
  • Metonymy: designation of something by one of its parts
  • Polysemy and Synonymy: Playing on the multiple meanings of words
  • Derivation or Resuffixation of existing words with popular suffixes
  • Truncation: either of the ending of a word or the beginning
  • Abbreviation
  • Loan Words from other languages

Slang typically starts in subcultures with very specific meanings, but sometimes it will expand beyond that group and gain mainstream acceptance. This is very often the case when the word or phrase is especially useful, like when a word fills a semantic gap (like baby-mama).

If a subculture’s structure is “tight” or does not experience much interaction with other cultures or the mainstream its specialized slang typically does not spread beyond the group. Early organized crime is an example of this, due to the highly controlled nature of these groups, much if its lexicon never saw mainstream diffusion. Once media (books, radio, movies and television) began to explore the criminal underground the slang started to spread. Cockney rhyming slang is another useful example, those cultures that had contact with the originating sub-culture had a tendency to assimilate it:

Rhyming slang has spread to many English-speaking countries, especially those that had strong maritime links with the UK in the 19th century, notably Australia, Ireland and Canada/USA.

The process of diffusion also creates evolutionary pressures on slangs much like other language attributes. As slang diffuses through culture, it often starts to loose some sharpness of meaning, and when it does new slang is needed and generally created by the subgroup that started the slang in the first place. “Baby-mama” is an example of this as much mainstream usage of the term does not imply the disconnectedness of the parents that the original meaning of the phrase did.

This selection and renewal process also happens because as it becomes accepted in the mainstream, slang looses its encryption and social-identification features. As soon as the “squares” start saying “groovy” the slang is meaningless and useless and the cycle begins again anew.

Individuals encounter and retain slang in the same way as other language, mostly through repetitive and contextual learning. We know from memory and learning research that”

If learners encounter unknown words ten times in context, sizeable learning gains may occur. However, to develop full knowledge of a word more than ten repetitions may be needed.

It is also interesting to note that while most languages commonly have mostly vertical transmission patterns (from parent to child) slang spreads faster and more virulently though horizontal transmission (peer to peer). This is due to the sub-cultural and intra-generational nature of slang as opposed to the mainstream immersion of early childhood language education.

Have you ever tried to start your own slang? How did it go?

If you liked this post, follow me on Twitter and join my email list.

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Site Updates and Prizes

I made a few changes here, like some of the fonts. I made a portfolio page and I have to add a new navigational menu somewhere, but I’m not sure where.

I’m also planning to give away a prize pack to one random subscriber (from the US, for shipping purposes) to my email list on August 22nd. So far the guys over at KickAssEveryDay.com have offered an awesome t-shirt to start off the prizes. I’ll send the winner a copy of Susan Blackmore’s Meme Machine from Amazon. Meme Machine is a seminal book on memetics and a huge influence on me.

Update: Geeks.com has added a 7″ Widescreen Digital Photo Frame w/MP3 to the prizes.

So sign up if you want to win.

If you or your company would like to sponsor a prize, email me.

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