The maths behind memes—why numbers could help us predict an internet sensation

July 10, 2017, University of Manchester
The maths behind memes—why numbers could help us predict an internet sensation

In today's social media driven society an internet meme or online trend can explode in popularity overnight, remember the Ice Bucket challenge? But why do some online trends take the world by storm before disappearing just as quickly as they arrive?

Researchers at The University of Manchester's School of Mathematics and company Spectra Analytics, are investigating internet trends and memes from the recent past to find out.

From 'planking' and 'cat beards' to and 'the lying down game', the team have been looking at 26 different internet memes and trends dating back to 2011, measuring their impact and longevity then collating the data for analysis.

All the numbers have now been crunched and the team have identified and tested a mathematical model that accurately demonstrates why some fads will take off and even predicts how long it will last.

'Complex contagion' is the model that best describes the spread of behaviours driven by online sharing according to Dr Thomas House, the study's senior author. Complex contagion isn't a new concept but here, and for the first time ever, Dr House and the study's first author Dr Dan Sprague have used mathematics and data analysis to describe the complex contagion theory and provide empirical evidence for its action across society.

Dr House explains: 'Social influence can lead to behavioural "fads" that are briefly popular but then quickly die out. Various theories and models have been proposed to explain such behaviours, but of their accuracy as real-world predictive tools has been absent so far.'

What makes this discovery even more important is that not only does it provide evidence to explain why such trends take off, but could also be used predict the next online fad. That makes it extremely useful for people working in professions such as advertising and marketing, and it could also change the way public health and safety campaigns are disseminated to the general public, for example.

Dr House added: 'Complex contagion has predictive power. The fast spread and longer duration of fads driven by complex contagion has important implications for activities such as publicity campaigns and charity drives. If we can predict and control what messages go viral, that is a very power tool.

'The significance of the study isn't simply to understand why we follow fads online, but to fully understand social influence and the effect others' has on our own. Improved understanding of this phenomenon should help to predict various phenomena of interest, from how well public-health interventions will work to the use of "nudges" in public policy.'

To test the model's predictive capabilities Drs House and Sprague applied it to one of 2014's biggest global trends, the Ice bucket Challenge. The model predicted the impact and duration of the Challenge with 95% accuracy.

Dr House said: 'Here we have shown that the observed spread of real-world behaviours linked to online trends can be explained using a complex contagion model, and demonstrate that this provides a predictive modelling framework for real-world behaviours spread online. Simply put, we potentially have a way to predict human behaviours and trends using maths, this is exciting stuff.'

Explore further: First mathematical model to explain how things go viral

More information: Daniel A. Sprague et al. Evidence for complex contagion models of social contagion from observational data, PLOS ONE (2017). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180802

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5 / 5 (1) Jul 10, 2017
Just what we need: Some AI generating instant internet eye catchers for the advertising companies and election campaigns. Beware of talking kittens selling soap powder.

All the websites are already using more bandwidth to carry clickbait than content.
not rated yet Jul 11, 2017
All the websites are already using more bandwidth to carry clickbait than content.

Really? All websites?

Word up: You'll have a lot more credibility if you use actual facts, instead of your emotional bias, or at least don't state facts that can be so easily determined as pure BS. Otherwise, those who know better will simply dismiss you as another stupid populist.

"What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what 'the stars foretell,' avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable 'verdict of history,'—what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your only clue. Get the facts!" — Robert Heinlein
1 / 5 (1) Jul 11, 2017
Maybe pick up Bill Nye's new book, "Everything All at Once: How to Unleash Your Inner Nerd, Tap into Radical Curiosity and Solve Any Problem," and learn how to think.

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