Monday, January 22, 2007

5 Things (about Memes and the Blogosphere)

I was recently tagged by Michael Lorenzen, a librarian who blogs at The Information Literacy Land of Confusion to play the game "5 Things." The basic idea is that you are supposed to list five things about yourself that people probably don't know and then tag five other bloggers to keep it going. I could just play along, but what would be the fun of that? I've decided to hack the rules a little bit so I can use this as an opportunity to say something about digital history. So, what might a future digital historian learn when he or she looks back at this activity?

1. Memes. In the mid-1980s when I'd had enough of being a microbiology major [#1] and decided to switch into cognitive science, I bought and read Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene. Most of his argument is devoted to the idea that the gene is really the unit of selection. It doesn't matter if the species, or community, or group, or even the individual prospers, as long as the gene gets a chance to replicate itself. In his final chapter, however, Dawkins took on cultural transmission, arguing that a new kind of replicator that he called a meme had emerged in "the soup of human culture." "Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation." His idea took off. You might say that the meme meme was very successful at replicating itself. Our future historian might be able to use archived internet records to see how the people who played games like this one understood what they were doing. I notice, for example, that Google Blog Search returns 86272 hits for "5 things." Almost twenty percent of those posts also use the word "tagged" (16532) and about six percent use the word "meme" (5433). Some other co-occurring words that might be useful include "chain" (1040), "viral" (165), "contagious" (82), "epidemic" (54), "wildfire" (37), "contagion" (4) and "diffusion" (2).

2. Models. It's one thing to say that memes spread by imitation, it's another to formalize that. I used to work in a clinical trials and epidemiological data centre [#2] where people quantified things like incidence (the percentage of the population affected in a given period), susceptibility (the degree to which a given host is vulnerable), infectivity (the capacity of a microorganism to cause infection), and virulence (the severity of disease). Different diseases are transmitted differently, either directly, or indirectly via live vectors or inanimate vehicles. Some epidemiological models may be useful to our future historian; many won't be. But having a complete, time-stamped record of the course of the "outbreak" will make it possible to create models that are far more precise and accurate than the ones that we can currently formulate.

3. So-called vanity searches. If I hadn't set up automatic searches for my last name, "digital history," "history and computing," and a number of other topics [#3] I wouldn't know that I had been tagged for this game. I hadn't come across Michael's blog before this. Vanity searching (i.e., Googling yourself) isn't just a way of finding out, as Stephen Colbert puts it, "Who's honoring me now?" It's a useful way to monitor how you appear to other people on the web. More importantly, it's a good way to find fellow travellers. As new digital historians create blogs, put up websites, and socially tag things that they find interesting, they link to existing sites. I regularly discover new researchers and new projects by following these links when they show up on my feedreader. Our future historian will no doubt make extensive use of perpetual analytics in their research, but will they be able to trace my searching behaviour? Almost certainly.

4. Blogospheric continents. Most "5 things" posts seem to include at least six links: one to the person who tagged you, and one each to the five people that you are tagging in turn. So each time somebody plays the game, the blogosphere gets denser, more closely knit, by six links. In a classic paper (Graph Structure in the Web) Andrei Broder and his colleagues showed that in 1999 the web had a macroscopic structure, consisting of a strongly connected core, a collection of nodes linking in toward the core, a collection of nodes that could be reached from the core by outward links, and pages that could not reach the core or be reached from it. I don't know if anyone has done a comparable study of the blogosphere yet. Probably they have. With a rich enough archive, it should be possible in the future not only to reconstruct the continents of the blogosphere, but to see them changing over time. Future historians might use something like plate tectonics to visualize these changes. (I talk a little bit about plate tectonics in my forthcoming monograph [#4], which isn't about digital history).

5. Micro-scale social networks. I found it hard to figure out who to tag next [#5]. Should you limit your choices to people who you already know ... online at least, if not in person? Should you only tag blogs that seem about as popular as your own? Should you tag new bloggers, in an effort to bring them into the social flow? Well-established ones, in an effort to get them to notice you? Records of the "5 things" game will be incredibly informative about the social mores of blogging, especially if they are correlated with geographic information, previous patterns of citation, Technorati rank, and so on.

Now I guess it's my turn to pass this on. I'm tagging five people who made the mistake of recently posting something that I enjoyed reading. I hope each feels free to hack the game in whatever way they see fit...
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