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

FB on left, BBC on right

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.

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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)

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