How Memes Go Viral and Evolve

Memes morph and evolve to suit the audience that views it especially on Facebook where it takes on different characteristics based on social groups, geographical locations, and even political affiliations.


On the surface, memes appear to be nothing more than an image or text — some neatly packaged snippet that elicits a laugh or inspires a moment of introspection. But the meme is a much broader tool of expression. Memes morph and evolve to suit the audience — especially on Facebook, where it takes on different characteristics based on social groups, geographical locations and even political affiliations.

A study by Facebook’s data science team analyzed hundreds of viral status updates, posted by hundreds of thousands of users. A post that became a meme in September 2009 is a fine example of the genre.

“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.”

This meme was shared by 470,000 users and remained unaltered. But as it was passed from user to user, it started to change. Some users started adding their name at the start, “Sam thinks no one…” and someone else added the phrase “we are only as strong as the weakest among us” to the middle. All in all, data analysts discovered 121,605 different variants of the meme included in 1.14 million status updates.

Certain iterations of the meme were more likely to be posted than others, especially those including a call to “post this as your status,” which made it 2.59 times more likely to be passed along. The Affordable Care Act meme, noted above, is about a fairly polarizing subject. However, the meme itself was tweaked and modified to fit the audience it was being shared with.

Some uses changed the beginning to “no one should go broke because government taxes and spends…” and the data indicate that this variant was much more likely to be shared among conservatives. Liberals were content to either share the meme as it was or make a Han Solo reference. It’s the perfect example of an online political echo chamber.

According to the study, the key to memes spreading is good grammar and direct calls to action. Asking users to share content works surprisingly well. Outside of niches, the less polarizing the meme, the better.

While the Affordable Care Act meme wasn’t for everyone, according to Lada Adamic, one of the data scientists responsible for the study, it sort of was in the end. “Even if you’re somehow not susceptible to passing the meme on, there’s usually some variant that still gets to you.”

Image credit: Nutter One