Are ideas literally contagious? It sure seems like it when watching the wildfire spread of memes on the internet. A recent Slate piece shows that the act of “going viral” may be structurally more like its biological counterpart than previously thought. Studying the hyped-up “25 things” meme from Facebook revealed that the spread of the idea was strikingly similar to a virus outbreak, including mutation and epidemic progression.
Since I’m no evolutionary expert, I shipped Slate‘s data to Lauren Ancel Meyers, a biology professor at the University of Texas who models the spread of infectious diseases mathematically. Meyers says that around Day 39 of Fig. 1, we see the “classic exponential growth of an epidemic curve.” (Day 39 in this graph is Jan. 8.) She also explains that “25 Things” authors can be seen as “contagious” under what’s known as a “susceptible-infected-recovered” model for the spread of disease. Think of “25 Things” authors as being contagious for one day—the day they tag a bunch of their friends. Meyers found that, for that one day, the growth parameter of the “25 Things” disease during its ascent phase (roughly until the beginning of February) was 0.27. This means that, on average, each “25 Things” writer inspired 1.27 new notes.