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How Do Memes Start? A Case Study: 100 Books in Facebook.

A “meme” is a little chain-letter-like game that people send around the internet.  You may have heard of Facebook’s latest meme “25 Things” (that was started by users, not the Facebook staff).

Ever wonder how these memes begin?

Let’s use the 100 Book meme that is hitting Facebook this week.  It’s a good study on how memes get started, how they change over time, and how they grow.

I just caught this from FriendFeed user Mark Dykeman:

“This is one of those Facebook memes that keeps circling around the universe.  I answered it on Facebook, but since some of you might not have access to my Facebook account, I thought I’d post the results here.

‘The BBC believes the majority of people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here.
Go to your profile, choose notes, post a new note – copy and edit.

Instructions: Look at the list and put an ‘x’ after those you have read.'”

Mark goes ahead and checks off the books he’s read on the list.  It’s more than 6.  The list is below, but hang here with me for a second.

Before you get your feathers ruffled about the audacity and snobbery of the BBC, let’s take a better look at this.

I looked for the origin of the meme by checking urban-myth-busting site Snopes and the BBC website.  Snopes had nothing about how the BBC supposedly claimed that most people will have read only 6 books on the entire list.  Snopes usually catches rumors quickly, but they don’t necessarily investigate every silly Facebook meme.  Personally, I doubt the BBC would have said that, but let’s be honest:  They’ve said worse.

On the BBC site I found no quotes, articles, or any mention whatsoever about the 6 book number; I did find the BBC’s BIG READ list where they list 100 books and they ask UK’ers to vote on their favorites.  Both the list from the Facebook meme and the BBC’s Big Read list look similar.  Could they be the same list?

So I stuck them in a spreadsheet and compared.   63 of the books are shared;  37 of the books are not.

Here is the shared list (click to embiggen):

63 FB List titles on left, 63 BBC List titles on right.  This list contains exactly the same books, with titles edited.

63 FB List titles on left, 63 BBC List titles on right. This list contains exactly the same books, with titles edited.

You’ll notice some of the book titles are written slightly differently, which implies more editing by the clever meme maker (who’ll we’ll refer to as the Facebook Meme Maker -FMM) that adjusted the original BBC list.  (With the Facebook Meme’s “Harry Potter Series” entry, I just used the first Harry Potter book.  Same with “The Faraway Tree Collection.”  In a list of 100 books, it’s confusing to reference a series.)

So this table (click on it then zoom in to see better) contains the 63 shared titles.  That means 37 titles were deleted and new ones added by the Facebook Meme Maker.

Here are the remaining 37 titles from the Facebook meme next to the original 37 from BBC list (click to embiggen):

37 FB List titles on left, 37 BBC List titles on right.  The lists don't share titles.

37 FB List titles on left, 37 BBC List titles on right. The lists don’t share titles.

Seems like FMM preferred more American authors and books that were later adapted into successful movies.  Maybe FMM heard some rumor that the BBC was dissing American authors and readers and felt like putting some of her/his own favorites on the list.  Who knows?

But this meme has some of the great signs of a viral commodity:

1. The meme’s subject is elitist in that it says something about the user’s level of intelligence. (“What? You haven’t read War and Peace?!)  This fosters (usually friendly) competition amongst friends.

2. The meme has a whiff of injustice that stirs up indignance. (“How DARE the BBC say that?! GIMME THAT LIST!”)

3. Filling out / answering the meme doesn’t take much time.  “Put an X by the books you’ve read.”

4. 100 books is perfect.  A nice, big milestone number.  “16 Things” (which I filled out) didn’t take off on Facebook but “25 Things” did.  People gravitate toward milestone, lucky, and zero-ending numbers in this culture.  No-one will look at an “82 Books You Need to Read” list.  “100” grabs everyone’s attention.

The FMM probably saw the BBC list and wondered how many of the books she/he had actually read.  Out of curiosity, the FMM checked off which book titles were familiar.  Perhaps when the number of recognized titles were low, the FMM decided to add the ones she/he did in fact read.  What followed was an email or two, with bragging evidence attached, of course, to a few dozen friends on Facebook.  Voila!  A meme is born.

People who successfully ignore memes will be sucked into this one for the false academic quality of it.  It’s about traditional literacy; We all take the “How Well Read Are You?” measurement quite seriously.

I myself am trying to work on being better read.  With all the hype about how the internet and tv are melting our brains, this meme is a zinger.  It feeds all the fear surrounding the changes in our culture.  It will most likely take off and get so big that Snopes will have to post on it.

Now you know how memes like this start.  And you also know why I’m not going to be sucked in.  It’s a hoax created by a smart FMM who blended some pop culture news story from half-way across the world into a pride-ruffling insult that must be disproved immediately by the educated American masses.  Have fun with it if you like, but please don’t spread the indignant attitude.  Reading itself should be a positive and inclusive activity.


UPDATE 17 November 2010: Please read through the comments, there is a lot of new information scattered in there. Thanks.

UPDATE 22 November 2010: If you liked this article, you make like these others I’ve written about Facebook:
How IDs work in Facebook: http://www.purplecar.net/2010/02/facebookphishingscam/,

Dear Abby Talks About FB http://www.purplecar.net/2010/07/kids-with-multiple-facebook-profiles/,

Ack! My In-Laws are on FB: http://www.purplecar.net/2010/08/the-in-laws-and-facebook/

UPDATE: MARCH 1 2011 Comments on this post are now closed.

UPDATE: OCTOBER 24, 2012 This meme is still going strong. The list is changing a bit, but it is still basically the same. If you want to figure out why you or others waste so much time doing unproductive things like Facebook, you can check out this book: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg*.

*(affiliate link)

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bittersweetroses 9 December 2010, 7:13 am

    Thank you for this, I was wondering why the Facebook list came up as different to the BBC list that I was familiar with…

    • PurpleCar 9 December 2010, 10:56 am

      And the BBC list is just “BBC fans’ favorite books!” BBC hasn’t fancied
      themselves to be experts on literature.

      -Christine Cavalier

  • David Farmbrough 9 December 2010, 9:41 am

    Thanks – I was suspicious because of the falsely-titled Alice In Wonderland, and also the use of “The BBC claims” to lend authenticity to an urban myth…. so I thought I’d google it and …. voila!

    • PurpleCar 9 December 2010, 10:55 am

      Great point, David, about “Alice in Wonderland” … The Wonderland of the
      Internet, indeed. Series books and books named like “Teenage Wasteland” should
      be big warning signs. Good for you on the Google search. We need to spread the
      word about how running a simple search is a necessary step in the use of the
      Internet. Thanks.

      -christine cavalier

  • Glen McNamee 13 December 2010, 11:09 am

    There is now a Facebook App based on this claim, but it seems to have the correct books.

    Link: http://www.facebook.com/BookListChallenge

    • Glen McNamee 13 December 2010, 11:17 am

      No, actually it is the wrong books. Someone has already posted a link to this blog on the apps discussion board too.

      • PurpleCar 13 December 2010, 12:22 pm

        zOMG. An app?!!! We must all be living in social media hell.

        -Christine Cavalier

  • chadt 22 December 2010, 1:45 am

    hi, i’m a long time internet user and the term meme is not a “little chain-letter-like game that people send around the internet”. I’ve never seen it formally defined but the definition would be close to; an idea or theme that is virally duplicated by many sources spawning different variations but remaining more or less true to its original.

    and then you can go into meme merging and other such things but thats not what i’m concerned with.

    • PurpleCar 22 December 2010, 7:03 am

      True. I write for beginners, though, and I needed a definition that fit this
      meme. Memes started out in email, replicating the chain-letters that went around
      in snail mail. That’s the history of the word. There can be multiple definitions
      and usages of words, so I think my definition in this context would definitely
      be one of the entries in a formal definition.

      It’s surprising to me how many people are deeply concerned about this particular
      word. I keep meaning to start another post to deal with it…


      • Susie B 23 December 2010, 4:43 am

        The history of the word is actually that it was invented by Richard Dawkins in 1976, so if you want a formal definition your best bet is to read what he said when he coined the word in The Selfish Gene:

        a meme is “a unit of cultural inheritance, hypothesized as analogous to the particulate gene and as naturally selected by virtue of its ‘phenotypic’ consequences on its own survival and replication in the cultural environment.”

        Or to put it more simply, it is a fragment of culture – something like a story, idea, belief or behaviour pattern – that is pased from one person to another by copying, imitation or teaching. It can be pased via email or the internet, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. Cinderella; whether you greet people with ‘Hello’, ‘How ya doing’, or ‘Hi’; how you hold and use a knife when you’re eating – these are all memes. Internet memes – such as book lists or amusing cat videos – are a very small and recent subset.

      • Ge Bilie 1 March 2011, 6:44 am

        I am surprised that you’re so surprised that people are deeply concerned about the severely limited scope of your definition of a meme given that your entire article was written to debunk a lie and express your contempt for the deceiver.

        Susie B has set the record straight for what a meme is below and I think she deserves your gratitude. Perhaps your mistake could have been overlooked in a way that the author of the books list could not due to your lack of intent, but you have continually defended yourself in the face of easily obtainable evidence to the contrary. Wasn’t it you who wrote below, “Why purport to be academic in your conjecture when you’ve not done the least bit of research?”

        Just apologize for your mistake and make a correction. It’s that simple and then perhaps more people will go read Dawkins.

  • PurpleCar 29 December 2010, 9:27 am

    OK, here’s the post on meme, complete with a definition and history of the word. I also add my reasoning for the use of “chain-letter like” in this post. http://www.purplecar.net/2010/12/definition-of-meme/

  • Sueskimo 30 December 2010, 11:03 am

    Ha! Ha! Just like you said this is now doing the rounds of my old uni friends and yes there is an element of competition especially between the scientists ( we need to prove we can read something other than a textbook) and the linguists ( who always felt they were superior to us!! :) )
    I noticed the penchant for books into films on the FB list but as I am so strange in my reading habits discovered to my delight that I am so well read I should be at Oxford!
    We are all soooo gullible – we really need to feel we are doing OK by some standard or other. I tottally agree – redaing shlud be for enjoyment not because you ought to have “done” a worthy book.
    As I disappear into The Hemlock Cup – Bettany Hughes book about Socrates which is great but not exactly bedtime reading; and listen to Percy Jackson and the Titan’s curse…..books are a joy!

    • PurpleCar 30 December 2010, 10:06 pm

      I love listening to books, by the way. I LOVED the Harry Potter series on CD. I
      had read the books, and hearing them read was amazing. Also, the actor that read
      Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy was superb.

      But yes, back to being sucked in, in a negative way… we are all so, SO
      gullible, as you said. Maybe it’s old media tradition, how we all just were
      trained to believe what we read in the paper. I find the older generations are
      even worse at this. For example, I remember when we had to explain something to
      my inlaws about rehearsal dinners, specifically that it was traditional to allow
      wedding party members to bring one guest to the rehearsal dinner. They didn’t
      believe us until we showed them a paragraph stating so in a wedding etiquette
      book. Nowadays, you can get any book that says any darn thing that suits your
      needs, especially if you print off some of the self-published drivel in the
      non-fiction section of any e-book store.

      And now that the conglomerates behind traditional news sources have been
      revealed, it’s more and more evident that we must find original sources
      ourselves. Seeing something printed and re-printed makes no difference any more.
      We must find trusted sources and make judgments based on those and any other
      source. This is a flawed system, of course, but we don’t have much choice.

      I’m glad you are one of the people that does look for original info. In doing so
      myself, I found that this meme held a false claim, and I could then let others
      know to stop the culture war they were beginning to wage in their heads against
      the BBC. God help us when false information leads to real wars… oh wait… God
      help us now.

      -Christine Cavalier


  • Daire 13 January 2011, 6:11 am

    It was the Sunday Times Book List that people have only read 6 of – about 2 years ago?!

    • PurpleCar 13 January 2011, 9:27 am

      Daire, yes it seems as though a list was in The Guardian over two years ago, but it was not the same list. Plus, don’t think that paper claimed that people have read only 6.
      Sent from Yahoo! Mail on Android

  • strange mother 21 January 2011, 8:52 am

    Mmm – I came to this list only recently and sure enough despite ‘never’ doing this kind of survey, I took it and have been just a bit obsessed since – even though I know that this is far from the only ‘top 100 books list’ out there and definitely not the UK and possibly young reader biased BBC list of favourites from 2003 ‘Big read’ (which actually goes up to 200 anyway). So despite the fact it is silly I’m now up to 93 titles on the list (do I really need to know so much about the 19th C sperm whaling industry?) and am just a bit troubled about how I’m going to go about reading the whole Bible to achieve 100…

    • PurpleCar 21 January 2011, 10:03 am

      LOL Hi Strange Mother.
      You sound like you should make your own 100 books lists! Why not write us up one
      for young adult, kids, adults, and classics, with international books? You seem
      very well read.

      I grew up in Catholic school so I’ve read the entire Bible in depth. Some parts
      many times. Psalms is probably the best written, the Gospel of Luke probably the
      least fact-based. Anyway, I’m good. 12 years of it was enough.

      Please make some notes and get back to us! I totally understand your obsession,
      as the Pulitzer list is just as random and I feel like I should read all of

      -Christine Cavalier

  • C3678859 21 January 2011, 1:39 pm

    Learn what a meme is.

    • PurpleCar 21 January 2011, 1:51 pm

      Wow, some of you are having a really hard time understanding this. Either that,
      or this commenter did not read through the comments.

      I posit that there are not enough words to sufficiently address the current
      needs of the tech community. Meme, to me, denotes participation. “Viral internet
      phenomenon” is not a meme, although “meme” is being applied to that definition.
      One could postulate that watching or even just receiving a meme is in fact
      participation, and I get that, but we need a word that includes the definition
      of more active involvement instead of passive participation. One other could
      postulate that meme is a word with multiple definitions. I say we all agree to
      this, for now.

      I suggest you read more of my blog and the comments before you comment on blog

  • Samuel David 15 February 2011, 5:30 am

    it looks like a spam. unwanted messages. but it is fun to pass around.
    free dating

  • Walkiria Truss 24 February 2011, 7:47 am

    I really tought abaut what you´re saying when I answered that, there was some titles that I ask “why is this here?” But I thoght the list with that kind of literature could be more opened to that ones who read only bestsellers, no matter if they´re great books, self-help sells lots of books. But it´s interesting to just remember that television is not the only thing that exist in the world. Your text is very cleaver and really makes us think about reading. Congratulations.

  • Lady Odcar 30 March 2011, 3:38 pm

    embiggen is not a word – you mean enlarge

    • PurpleCar 30 March 2011, 3:42 pm

      Yes, you are correct, “embiggen” is not a word. I used it as a joke. It’s a
      common joke among geeky types on the web.

      thanks for the head’s up though!


  • Christine Cavalier 3 March 2009, 5:12 pm

    yeah it is screwy, listing series of books instead of one book, etc. It’s probably gone through a bunch of iterations. Probably each person who got it added books they’ve read and deleted some they didn’t!

  • Christine Cavalier 3 March 2009, 5:13 pm

    Who the heck knows what “good literature” is anyway? I think that the list is close enough to agree that its origins are the BBC list. It’s easier for a list to degrade over time from it’s original rather than a random list growing over time to correlate with another list by 63%.

  • nick_h_nz 21 November 2010, 10:22 am

    Then again, the BBC list which provided the origin for the meme never claimed to be a list of good literature anyway – merely a list of favourite books. In that case, I find it more surprising that so many works of “good literature” (subjectively speaking, of course!) did make it into the list – unless it was because the repsondants were attempting to prove themselves well-read (and were, perhaps lying – as per your other BBC web link). Then again, I can say that 1984, Animal Farm and Catch-22 are three of my favourite books ever, so I guess that there is a chance that the list is a reasonably accurate reflection of Britain’s favourite books, rather than a list of what Britons believe ought to be their favourite books…. 😉

  • PurpleCar 21 November 2010, 10:33 am

    And you know, there is a ton of literature out there that isn’t noticed by the
    mass market. Also, if a book gets to a level of real difficulty (like I’m
    finding Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude), it won’t make any meme
    lists. You know why? Because the people who have read it won’t brag about it.
    They are at an educated level that allows them the appreciation and tolerance of
    differences. I find people who spread mems like this fall into two categories:
    well-meaning types who are in general fun and curious types if not a bit
    ignorant of the implications of spreading this kind of meme; and the other more
    nefarious type: the hacks. They are mediocre in their knowledge yet deem
    themselves superior anyway. That kind of exclusive and
    not-supported-by-actual-expertise attitude is a major pet peeve of mine. I see
    those people as screaming “I’M IGNORANT” when they spread stuff like this.
    No-one of real intelligence ever brags about how well-read they are, because the
    more you read, the more you know about what you haven’t read and couldn’t
    possibly read in your lifetime, and to claim that you are “well-read” is a true
    sign that you’re ignorant of other cultures, history, and the vast, vast world
    of literature.

    -Christine Cavalier


  • nick_h_nz 22 November 2010, 5:48 pm

    I totally agree, and the funny thing is that much of the literature not noticed by the mass market, has come so close. You can take virtually any prestigious book award, and the mass market will know about at least the winner, if not also at least a couple of the runners up. Even if they never read these books, they will associate them with great literature. But there will be many books that almost made it, and were recognised by the various award committees, but may never be recognised by the mass market.
    Similarly, it is these winners and runners up which remain known for years afterward, and this longevity keeps them in top book lists for ever after. Yet the winner one year may conceivably have been only a runner up another year. Surely it is virtually impossible for any award committee to be completely objective and to be consistent year after year after year.

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