That sure didn’t take long….Word of Scott Eric Kaufman’s meme experiment has reached Wired News, which just ran a story on it. Well, sort of a story. It manages to avoid discussing what Kaufman was actually trying to do. Seems like the kind of factual point you’d want to nail down.
The Wired reporter notes that something akin to this experiment has been done before. (No surprise there. The whole idea has a kind of “Intro to Statistical Methods” practicum quality to it.) A couple of years ago, a researcher found that his “test meme” did indeed propagate widely and wildly across the digital landscape, like so many rabbits in some predator-free and lettuce-rich wilderness.
Okay, fair enough. But the whole point of Kaufman’s experiment was to show that, on the contrary, something that started out on an academic blog would not then multiply like bunnies, etc. He figured it would get only limited circulation—and then only with help from more high-visibility academic blogs, which presumably are read mostly by other academics.
As a matter of fact, Kaufman spelled things out in a text made available to the Wired reporter:
I wanted to see the potential reach of a small academic blogger working on a small, academic project. (By “small” I mean a regular audience of approximately 500 readers, which is what I have on a daily basis.) Turns out, it’s quite substantial, but it still requires the “skyhooks” of larger bloggers. The post languished for a few hours with links to a number of
smaller (exclusively academic) blogs, then suddenly exploded with a link from a significant one (Bitch Ph.D.), which led to a link to another significant one (Pharyngula), which created this—what to call it? perpetual snowball machine? A push from a high-traffic blog brings links from its low-traffic readers, but as the now-roaring ball approaches the bottom of the hill, it’s skyhooked back to the top by another high-traffic blog (Crooked Timber), which pushes it down, &c.
Kaufman’s initial expectation seems to have been that the dispersion of something originating within the academic blogosphere would be limited, even with “skyhooking” giving the meme more visibility. This hypothesis might be called, for want of a better word, “counter-blog-triumphalist.” It cast dount on the idea that digital space is one big agora or coffeehouse. It treated hierarchy and enclosure as the norms of online as well as offline social space. Such assumptions are, in short, kind of un-Wired.
But it appears that he was wrong. The borders of blogal academe turn out to be more porous than expected. People who read knitting blogs, for example, became enthusiastic about circulating his meme. Knitting blogs? Yes, knitting blogs.
Since Kaufman is a literature graduate student venturing into the realms of quantitative social science, he is subject to methodology slam, and no doubt rightly so. Contra the Wired report, however, the whole episode was not quite the case of a researcher going, “I have an idea. I will call it ‘the wheel.’ Can such a thing be built? Let me find out.”
One other thing: The article ends by saying Kaufman will “present his findings at the Modern Language Association conference next spring.” That much, at least, is news. For as long as anyone can remember, the MLA convention has been held during the final week of December—a time normally considered the dead of winter. (Someone should write a novel about the MLA convention called The Dead of Winter.)
Anyway, if they’ve gone and rescheduled it, that would stink, because I’ve already made hotel reservations. I’m commenting on the panel that Kaufman has put together. It meets at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday. Despite this, we remain friends.