How are memes born and how do they spread? A new study tries to give the answer

How are memes born and how do they spread? A new study tries to give the answer

How is a meme born and spread? A team of researchers from Stanford University has tried to trace the origins of these viral images with a humorous content, a global phenomenon and an integral part of the Internet culture. To do this, the researchers conducted a large-scale web analysis, aimed at testing hypotheses about which communities the viral spread of the images started. The results of the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the Acm on human-computer interaction, suggest that mainstream communities create the most shared memes, making the web a highly centralized generator of cultural products.

Origins of memes Defining memes is not easy: they are images with text overlays that convey messages with humorous content to a specific audience, which circulate online and quickly go viral. Probably, however, this explanation is reductive: memes are an integral part of the Internet culture, they are a global and pervasive phenomenon: it happens more and more often that they are used, for example, also for marketing or social engagement campaigns.

"Our study grew out of the question: where does Internet culture come from?" Michael S. Bernstein, one of the authors of the article, tells Tech Xplore. "We are surrounded by memes and other forms of online culture, but which communities give rise to the content we see around us every day?"

In this regard, there is no univocal opinion: researchers dealing with media narratives believe that cultural innovations often generate in peripheral communities and then spread later to the core central (mainstream communities), while the behavioral sciences argue that communities that connect peripheries and central nucleus are particularly prone to giving rise to influential cultural products. On the Internet, things are further complicated: to have a complete view of the issue, one must consider the entire online ecosystem, consisting of numerous platforms (for example social networks such as Twitter or the news aggregator and discussion forum Reddit): analyze them individually it would offer a partial and incomplete vision of the cultural world on the web.

A centralized content generator The researchers, therefore, who previously had already dedicated themselves to the study of individual online platforms, conducted a large-scale web analysis, looking for the sources from which the memes originate and the way in which they spread. For a month, the research team scanned all the indexable online communities that share images with English text overlays. Then, he used computer vision technologies to trace the path of each image back to its origin. In this way, the researchers identified when the meme was first published and how many times it was re-shared. From this process it emerged that central communities generate the most widespread memes: in particular, the researchers found that most of the images were first published on Reddit and then shared on other platforms. This makes the process of meme creation and dissemination extremely centralized.

"Our analysis showed that some memes may still come from peripheral communities, but every day most of the content we see is first posted to a mainstream platform, "Bernstein adds.

The results found offer new insights into online media research, which could lead to new theories on the spread of viral content. "Our next work will be about creating memes, but I think it's also important for us to consider whether we're happy with the centralization of the Internet culture. By posting on Reddit, TikTok, and so on, you get a large audience but subcommunities play a role. important in our culture and it is unclear whether social media supports them as they should ".

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