Anatomy of a Meme

Bill Hobbs passes on an interesting study on blog memes:

Using newly developed techniques for graphing the flow of information between blogs, the researchers have discovered that authors of popular blog sites regularly borrow topics from lesser-known bloggers – and they often do so without attribution.


To satisfy their curiosity, the researchers began analyzing data from Intelliseek’s BlogPulse web crawler, which regularly mines thousands of blogs for references to people, places and events. When they plotted the links and topics shared by various sites, they discovered that topics would often appear on a few relatively unknown blogs days before they appeared on more popular sites.

I wonder about the “without attribution” business. My guess is that the obsure sites find stuff but, because they’re obscure, go ignored. Ideas catch on when someone who has an audience mentions them.

Indeed, the team at HP Labs found that when an idea infected at least 10 blogs, 70 percent of the blogs did not provide links back to another blog that had previously mentioned the idea.

To get past this obstacle, the researchers developed techniques to infer where information might have come from, based on the similarities in text, links and infection rates.

For instance, if Blog A used the words “furry germs” to link to an infectious topic like Giantmicrobes just days after Blog B in the same social circle used the exact same words and link, that would be a good sign that Blog A copied Blog B.

Well, maybe. But sometimes phraseology is obvious. Also, it’s often contained in the linked source as well.

The more popular sites tend to read a lot of material and pass it on. Glenn Reynolds, for example, has been king of the blogs precisely for his talent at spotting interesting ideas and making them known, often with scant commentary. Bill Hobbs and Jeff Quinton have made their reputations primarily by his in-depth coverage of Tennessee and South Carolina politics, respectively, and both read the most obscure details of their subjects. Information that appears on obscure sites is very much like the proverbial tree falling in the forest when no one’s around.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.