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A Cornucopia of Status Memes - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

A Cornucopia of Status Memes [Oct. 29th, 2010|11:22 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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There's an excellent Facebook status meme that's been going around over the last week or so:
Please put this as your status if you know or are related to someone killed on Alderaan when it was obliterated by the Death Star. Our wish is that people will understand that the Empire is a band of murdering scum. The Rebel Alliance wants to bring peace to the galaxy, but the Galactic Empire continues to kill innocent civilians. 93% won't copy/paste this. Will YOU make this your status for at least one hour?
Aside from the obvious, which is that the meme is in jest and likely took off as a way of poking fun at the onslaught of serious status messages in the same vein (cancer, Alzheimer's... you've seen them), what is so awesome about this meme is the variety of mutants:
Please put this as your status if you know, or are related to someone killed on the Death Star when it was obliterated by the Rebel terrorists. The Empire brings Unity, but the Rebel terrorists continue to foster division and hatred. 2,471,647 Imperial citizens died in the terrorist attack against the Death Star. 93% of people won't copy/ paste this. Will YOU make this your status for at least one hour?
There's also a variant unrelated to Star Wars:
Please put this on your status if you know someone (or are related to someone) who has been eaten by a dragon. Dragons are nearly unstoppable and, in case you didn't know, many can breathe fire. 93% of people won't copy and paste this, because they have been eaten by dragons. The other 7% of people are sitting in the shower armed with fire extinguishers.
and this sports-related one that I don't care for much:
Put this on your status if you know someone/are related to someone who suffers from being a Dallas Cowboys Fan. Being a Cowboys Fan is a real disorder and should be taken seriously. There is still no known cure for DCF and sympathy does not help. But we can raise awareness. 90% of Cowboys fans wont repost this because they don't know how to copy and paste.
(Needless to say, there's a variant for pretty much every sports team.)

Here is the combined feed of all the memes.

As you can see from the links, there is a delicious variety of each of these. For example, the number of Death Star-related casualties varies among 265,675,  289,815,  365,675,  2,471,647 and 1.97 billion, and assuredly many other numbers that I haven't seen yet.

I have no idea which meme started first or how the relative popularity has varied over time (I first came across the Alderaan one, and currently the sports memes seem to predominate). I'd love to be able to find out, but in general the problem with these memes is that one only becomes aware of them after they've become somewhat popular and by then it's too late to find the origin. The other problem is that only a fraction of statuses are public, which is a real impediment if you're trying to track the spread precisely, especially near the beginning.

Twitter has neither of these problems — almost everything is public, and since you can get a reasonable approximation to the full firehose you can spot memes very, very early — but unfortunately due to the 140 character limitation the variety of Twitter memes is much poorer.

Note that I'm using the word meme here in a somewhat restrictive sense: the message is self-contained, and it explicitly exhorts you to replicate it. These are the properties that lead to the richness that I'm talking about.

I may have said it before, but I think these little snippets of text offer an incredibly powerful window into humanity if someone will take the time to analyze them rigorously and quantitatively. At present I'm not aware of any research groups doing so, but I'm sure it's going to become a hot area pretty soon.

Finally, for all the grief I've given Facebook for trampling over user privacy, I think this one tiny little positive externality alone — the ability to analyze public status memes — is a good that is of the same magnitude as the harm that's come out of the company's privacy practices. I don't buy the "greater good" argument, but one has to wonder if there's a point at which the greater good becomes so incomparably huge in comparison with the individual risk that the latter is excusable.

I've written earlier the topic of Facebook, privacy and memes — see The anatomy of a privacy meme.