Memetic Schadenfreude

There are some interesting lessons about viral marketing that can be learnt from statistics. Essentially, viral success comes only at the very tails of the quality distribution, or the ‘bell curve of awesomeness’. Even so, success is not guaranteed. The author of the post goes on to criticize the generic marketing entities that churn out material in the center of the distribution and sell it with the viral buzz word.

In reality, the observation that ideas can behave like virii is not something limited to our new ultra-connected world. Richard Dawkins popularized the idea when he coined the term Meme in his book The Selfish Gene. In fact the were many intellectual precedents to this idea, coming from the field of Evolutionary Epistemology, the proponents of which had observed that ideas seem to evolve in populations according to something like the fundamental Variation, Selection, Retention (VSR) model of Darwinian evolution. Ideas that fit the environment in some sense are retained, e.g. good theories, good spear building practices or knowledge of poisonousness berries. On the other hand poor performers are weeded out by the community.

There are of course many Kinds Of Minds in the world, and humans do not seem to be alone in their use of evolution to improve their ideas and pass them to the next generation. Birds and dolphins imitate sounds and the Chaffinch has been shown to evolve its song in a manner eerily similar to human cultural evolution.

However, I am not aware of anyone having made the observation that ideas of extremely poor value are imitated and shared by other animals. I suspect that the human propensity for viral spread of poor quality content is a memetic version of Schadenfreude, in which we take pleasure from some one else’s complete lack of talent. I think it is would be very interesting to know more about this behavior. A simple experiment could be done to determine if material from either end of the ‘bell curve of awesomeness’ is more likely to produce a viral outcome. We could take a sample of things that went viral and then get a bunch of people to rank them as either ‘awesome’ or ‘so shit it might actually be good’. We average the rankings and then see if either end is statistically over represented.

My suspicion is that the two are probably very close to being equally likely, but if I had to say which would be more likely, I would say the stuff at the bottom.

  1. Perhaps this is because unusual data points are interesting to us. They help us sketch out boundaries.
    also, sometimes “so bad it’s good” is really about bad content with a novel twist – and the twist is so very novel, that we’re prepared to wear the badness.

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