The maths behind the memes: Why we share on social media

In today's social media driven society, an internet meme or online trend can explode in popularity overnight. (Remember the Ice Bucket challenge?) But why do some online trends take the world by storm before disappearing just as quickly as they arrive, and why do we share them?
Written by Eileen Brown, Contributor
(Image: Mark Hamill via YouTube)

Americans love social media, and they post constantly. But, what actually motivates them to post, and can we predict what will make them post?

Visual content solutions provider Olapic has published a survey that evaluates the motivational and emotional responses that drive Americans to share on social media. It looked at more than 1,000 respondents -- aged 16 to over 60.

The results show that emotions drive social posting more than bragging rights do. Half of us post to communicate our emotions, sharing how we feel, what we think, or what we have been doing.

Forty percent of Americans (aged from 16 to 44) post so their friends will interact with them on their social media profiles.

Women are much more likely (41 percent) than men (28 percent) to post to be supportive of friends or connections. Women are also more likely to post to feel connected with people (38 percent) than men (30 percent).

Men are more likely to post to make others feel jealous (8 percent) than women (5 percent).

About 20 percent of young Americans (ages 16 to 29) share visual content from brands multiple times a day, compared to about 10 percent of older generations.

This behaviour shows that most Americans post for emotional validation. They post because they think people will find it interesting (with 16 to 29 year olds leading the charge on posting for that reason).

Most people do not post with the intention of showing off a lifestyle (only 13 percent do), influencing other's opinion of them (9 percent), or to show off or make friends jealous (only 7 percent)

The 16 to 29-year-old age group is still more likely than any other age group to post to show off or make others jealous (16 percent do this). Males in general are slightly more likely to do this (8 percent) than females (5 percent).

We share memes and fun stuff. But what meme will take off and go viral, and which will stay popular for a long time?

From 'planking' and 'cat beards' to and 'the lying down game,' researchers at The University of Manchester's School of Mathematics in the UK looked at 26 different internet memes and trends.

With data analysis company Spectra Analytics, they measured impact and longevity and then collated the data for analysis.

The maths behind the memes - why we share on social media ZDNet
(Image: University of Manchester)

The team identified and tested a mathematical model that accurately demonstrates why some fads will take off, and it predicts how long the fad will last.

To test the model's predictive capabilities, Dr. Thomas House and Dr. Dan Sprague, the study's authors, applied it to one of 2014's biggest global social media trends: the Ice Bucket Challenge. The model predicted the impact and duration of the challenge with 95-percent accuracy.

'Complex contagion' is the model that best describes the spread of behaviours driven by online sharing, according to Dr. House, the study's senior author.

Complex contagion is not a new concept. Dr. House and Dr. Sprague used mathematics and data analysis to describe the complex contagion theory, and to provide empirical evidence for its action across society.

Dr. House explained: "Social influence can lead to behavioural 'fads' that are briefly popular but then quickly die out. Various theories and models have been proposed to explain such behaviours, but empirical evidence of their accuracy as real-world predictive tools has been absent so far."

This theory provides evidence to explain why trends take off, but it could also be used predict the next online fad.

That makes it extremely useful for people working in professions such as advertising and marketing, and it could also change the way public health and safety campaigns are disseminated to the general public.

Dr. House said: "Complex contagion has predictive power. The fast spread and longer duration of fads driven by complex contagion has important implications for activities such as publicity campaigns and charity drives.

"If we can predict and control what messages go viral, that is a very powerful tool."

Predicting and controlling viral messages is the nirvana of sharing -- especially for the marketing team.

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