The other day, I ran into this post on the Contentious weblog which, in turn, led me to this longer post about an experiment conducted by a PhD student. Basically, he created a survey that he asked people to fill out, post to their blogs, and then pass on, like chain email. He wanted to see how the "meme" propagated across the web, tracking where it showed up and how it changed or "mutated."
While this is an interesting study, it has several very prominent limitations. First, I'm not sure if I would call a complete survey a "meme." Here is how the author himself defines "memes:"
A meme can be defined as self-propagating unit of information similar to the biological concept of a gene, the term was first used by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene). Familiar examples of Internet memes are well known: I kiss you, All your base are belong to us, The Nike sweatshop story and more recently p23s5 and the order of words meme. Memes are are often considered "idea viruses" that spread in communities, with many believing that various religions can be considered meme like.
Leaving aside the open question of how big a meme can be (e.g., can a whole religion really be put in the same category as, say, an urban legend?), there's nothing really viral about a survey per se. What's interesting about the idea of memes is not simply that they spread but that they spread by sticking in our heads. In other words, you shouldn't need to do an elaborate copy and paste operation in order to propagate a meme; it should be inherently memorable. So I don't know if what the author is testing really is meme propagation.
From a more practical standpoint (and this isn't really the fault of the author, since he isn't claiming that his method will have practical applications), what I really want to be able to do is track any arbitrary meme as it wings its way across the internet. The author's method doesn't do this for us. Luckily, there is an idea floating out there in the blogosphere that might just do the trick.
More on that in the next two posts.