The birth of a meme

It is common knowledge that Twitter has become a vital source of breaking news and a generator of memes that spread throughout the internet. Yet how does an image posted to Twitter or a 140-character post circle the globe, picking up speed before it ends up on the evening news or in the morning paper? Online magazine Next Generation Online, went to the trouble of plotting a variety of paths that a tweet can take to become a meme and generated an interesting info-graphic to back it up.

Wikipedia defines an internet meme as “a concept that spreads swiftly via the internet.” An example of a massive meme that traveled the globe virally was that of the young Chinese beauty, Wang Zifei. The Huffington Post explains how it all began: “Wang Zifei, a student at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, attended Barack Obama’s town hall at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, and happened to have sat in a spot that resulted in her appearing in a number of photos from the event.”

She became an overnight sensation in China and all over the web, and was known worldwide as “the Obama girl in black”.  Next Generation Online used this meme as a case study for their info-graphic.

It all started with press footage during the US Presidential Campaign when Candidate Obama visited China. The young lady sitting in a red coat was framed perfectly behind Barack Obama while he delivered a speech in Shanghai, China. She was eye-catching; pictures were snapped and tweeted while she took off her bright red coat. Later pics showed the young lady shaking hands with Obama.

The tweeted pics went viral on Twitter with comments ranging from her clothing to her appearance and her confident handshake. A couple of followers chose to re-tweet pictures of her, while others posted pictures and comments onto Facebook. The meme had begun.

Once an idea has entrenched itself on Facebook and Twitter, the next logical viral step it takes is that it enters the blogosphere. Bloggers sense the mood and pick up on the potential of a story and they start to write about it, comment on it, and expose it to a wider audience.

At this point, the “meme” starts to spread in all directions at once. It gets indexed by search engine giants, it gets bookmarked by social sites like Reddit or Digg, and makes its way onto Flickr and Bloggr.

All of these steps lead up to the ultimate sign of viral acceptance: the office e-mail. Once a meme begins to spread via e-mail between colleagues, friends and family, it is virtually unstoppable and it rapidly cemented its place in the broader web.

Another meme began at that same event. which, ironically, centered on the absence of a tweet. One student asked Obama during the Q&A session whether Chinese students should be able to use Twitter freely in a country where the internet is heavily regulated and censored.

Obama’s surprising response started with the line, “Well, first of all, let me say that I have never used Twitter.” That one line became an instant Twitter hit and traveled the same path as the meme of Wang Zifei.

So, the presidential candidate didn’t tweet, yet regularly made his way around the Twitterverse. One might think that he was a bit out of touch, yet compared to his predecessor — who once admitted he had never sent an email — the President is tech-savvy. Since he took office, President Obama has realised the usefulness of Twitter and engaged thoroughly with the service.

The infographic from Next Generation Online is an attempt to break down and understand the viral spread of a meme into steps, but in reality, ideas like this often explode onto all channels at once at a bewildering pace. Nevertheless, it’s a useful tool with which to try and understand how memes take flight in this hyper-connected world.

Click to enlarge.
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