Son of “The MLA Meme.”

by Scott McLemee on December 1, 2006

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.



Eszter 12.01.06 at 4:25 pm

I didn’t comment on this the first time around, because I saw too many problems with it to even try to fit into a comment (or my schedule).

I’ll just take a noteworthy snippet out of the Methodology Slam post:

    I suggested to Scott that he put all of this criticism to productive use at the MLA conference – prove the value of internet academic discussion, by challenging his panel audience to see whether they can come up with as many reasons that his methodology is “crap”. ;-P


Scott Eric Kaufman 12.01.06 at 5:08 pm

Eszter, I appreciate not piling it on, but I wouldn’t have minded if you had. I consider this–by which I mean, the criticisms both private and public–my reintroduction to the social sciences and statistics. (I haven’t touched statistics, for example, since my undergraduate days.)

Had my hypothesis been correct, I wouldn’t have needed a reintroduction to anything, though, as I would’ve been able to count the number of responses on one hand, two tops. My original point, as Scott mentioned, was that despite the blogosphere’s free-wheeling reputation, its academic corners maintain many traditional hierarchies; the only exception being the student/graduate student/professor one, but I think everyone considers that a benefit because it initiates and/or accelerates the professionalization process. (Which would mean, vis-a-vis my overall argument, that interdisciplinary input would be neither more nor less respectable, merely more accessible.)


Jackmormon 12.01.06 at 5:41 pm

The knitting blog connection: Teresa Nielsen Hayden put up a sidebar link at Making Light. Or at least that’s my guess.


John Emerson 12.01.06 at 6:11 pm

Another interesting experiment would be for someone else to do more or less the same thing, and then after that a third person, and so on. I doubt that the next Kaufman will get many links.

But then, maybe if the academic blogosphere is left to recharge its ….. whatever blogospheres recharge for six months or a year, someone could do this again.

I can see some nice graphs coming out of it.


Randolph Fritz 12.01.06 at 10:11 pm

TNH put up that link at about the same time she put up a main text article on knitting, with a link to a major knitting blog. So…


PZ Myers 12.02.06 at 12:17 am

Knitting blogs are actually rather interesting — it’s a distinct niche with a lot of ingrown enthusiasm. You see the same kind of activity with sports blogs, and car blogs, for instance, but the thing is that knitting blogs seem to interdigitate well with academic blogs (there are a lot of academics who knit, I think. At my Ph.D. defense, there were lots of my peers and committee members knitting in my audience — it was like a flock of Madame Defarges). The knitters seem to be a large group with diverse interests that may be a significant disseminator of ideas from one blogging category to another.

One other thing that may have scuttled Kaufman’s hypothesis: this was a meme about spreading information via blogs, and that’s of interest to every blogging category. If he’d gone with something that was a little less universal, maybe he would have seen the spread confined to a smaller niche. No surprise there.


John Emerson 12.02.06 at 6:54 am

Scott Eric has been destroyed by success. He will never live this down.

Nice knowin ya, Scott. Hoser.


Eszter 12.02.06 at 1:45 pm

Scott, having read reactions to your project, it seems to me that you have plenty to go on as to why it is problematic. One major issue is the point PZ Myers notes in the second paragraph of his comment above.

UC-Irvine has some great sociologists and I’m sure someone among them teaches a research methods course. I recommend taking such a class if you’re truly interested in improving your skills in this domain.


Scott Eric Kaufman 12.02.06 at 3:43 pm

PZ, while I didn’t have anyone knitting during my defense–mostly because I haven’t had it yet–I think you’re correct to point to the knitting blogosphere as being, I don’t know, unusually contemplative? I wonder if this isn’t because while knitting occupies the hands, the mind’s free to roam? This may be something to address directly to the knitting community, though. I must say that I’ve enjoyed reading all the knit-bloggers who linked to me, if only because we share a love of intentionally terrible puns.

As for its content, I thought the limited reach of my influence would keep the meme in check. But I’m happy I ran the experiment, if only because I can now cite N. Pepperell’s “methodology slam” in my talk. Because if “the new interdisciplinary” means anything, it’s that people outside your tiny corner of academia can now read, evaluate and condemn your work.

John, you can’t test whether success will destroy me–I’ve yet to experience any.

Eszter, would that I could, would that I could. (One day I’ll voice my opposition to the practice of closing lectures to the unenrolled. It’ll be a call to return to the public lecture series, of the weekly sort the British Association once gave. I would attend those in a heartbeat. Instead, we live in a world in which I was asked to leave an undergraduate geology class because humanities graduate students aren’t allowed to sit in on undergraduate science courses.)


John Emerson 12.02.06 at 3:51 pm

No, Scott, you planned to fail, but succeeded. Success of the most fatal kind.


Scott Eric Kaufman 12.02.06 at 3:56 pm

Fatal how? (looks around suspiciously) What are you up to in there?


John Emerson 12.02.06 at 6:37 pm

No one can be trusted, Scott.


John Emerson 12.03.06 at 8:18 am

One thing knitters seem to share is an aversion to Moby Dick.


Mary 12.04.06 at 10:43 pm

The resurgence of knitting that started around 2000 was driven by female former dot-commers. I know because while searching for work at the time, I took a part time job at an urban yarn shop and over half the staff were techies on the lookout for the next stage of their lives.

Many of these women started blogs. People in yarn shops pointed new knitters to blogs and knitting sites. The knitting blogs I read are, for the most part, older than the equivalent political blogs. Of course, the size of the knits4jesus crowd shouldn’t be underestimated. But knitters are almost always something else (techie/academic/artist) primarily, so knitblogs are a link across many seemingly non-intersecting spheres.


Phil 12.05.06 at 11:06 am

I wanted to see the potential reach of a small academic blogger working on a small, academic project.

I’m with PZM. If that’s what you wanted to know, why didn’t you just ask some small* academic bloggers working on small academic projects? I get a steady 12-15 hits a day on my small academic blog**, maybe 20-25 when I actually post something. I got cited by a financial journalist once and got 100/day for about a week, and then it died down again (and I don’t think the post itself made it beyond that one blog). Methodologically, a post saying “I wonder how far this post will spread” isn’t exactly neutral – it’s the next best thing to a Craig Shergold letter (or a Thresher’s offer).

*Five-eight, if you must know. OK, it’s not tall, but still…
**No names, no skyhooks.

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