Facebook Memes, Or The Telephone Game?

By David Cohen 

MemeVariantTreeIn the old children’s game commonly referred to as telephone, the first player whispered a message to the second player, and the message was passed through the chain of participants until it reached the final player, and that player’s version of the message was then compared with the original, as the message was usually changed during the process. Lada Adamic, Thomas Lento, Eytan Adar, and Pauline Ng of the Facebook Data Science Team found in a study that the same principle applies to memes on the social network.

The researchers examined a meme that took root in September 2009, when more than 470,000 Facebook users posted the following statement in their status updates:

No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, post this as your status for the rest of the day.

The four Facebook Data Science Team researchers described their findings:

In September 2009, more than 470,000 Facebook users posted this exact statement as their status update. At some point, someone created a variant by prepending “thinks that” (which would follow the individual’s name, e.g., “Sam thinks that no one …”), which was copied 60,000 times. The third most popular variant inserted, “We are only as strong as the weakest among us,” in the middle. “The rest of the day” at one point (probably in the late evening hours) became “the next 24 hours.” Others abbreviated it to “24 hrs,” or extended it to “the rest of the week.”

In all, using anonymized data, we detected 121,605 different variants of this particular meme, which appeared in 1.14 million status updates.

The researchers also found similar results in analyzing these other memes (unedited):

  • To all my fb friends in honor of mother’s day I’m trying to see how many of you are willing to change your profile picture to a picture of your mother and keep it there till May 9. I did and so have several others. If you will and like this idea please repost this as your status so everyone gets the word and see how many beautiful mothers we can get on fb.
  • I personally believe in Jesus Christ. One facebooker has challenged all believers to put this on their wall. The bible says if you deny me in front of your peers, I will deny you in front of my father. This is a simple test. If you are not afraid to show it re-post this. I proudly did.
  • Charlie Sheen (47) is all over the news because he’s a celebrity drug addict, while Andrew Wilfahrt (31), Brian Tabada (21), Rudolph Hizon (22), Chauncy Mays (25) are all soldiers who gave their lives this week with no media mention. Honor them by re-posting this status.
  • Amber alert: Edmonton, Kentucky, USA. Little girl 3 yrs old picked up by man driving grey car license plate Quebec 72b 381 Canada. Put this as your status. It could save her. This kidnapping is recent, so do it. 3 seconds will not kill you. If it were your child what would you want people to do?
  • Please copy & paste this to your status if you are constantly being asked to copy & paste something to your status by friends who copy & paste things to their status. Many people won’t copy & paste this, but my true sarcastic friends will copy & paste it because they know this was copied & pasted from a dear friend in need of more stuff to copy & paste. Thank you and don’t forget the heart ♥.
  • The girl you just called fat? She has been starving herself & has lost over 30lbs. The boy you just called stupid? He has a learning disability & studies over 4hrs a night. The girl you just called ugly? She spends hours putting makeup on hoping people will like her. The boy you just tripped? He is abused enough at home. There’s a lot more to people than you think. Put this as your status if you’re against bullying.

Readers: Did any of the findings by the Facebook Data Science Team surprise you?