That’s the lesson from Slate’s analysis of the evolutionary roots of Facebook’s “25 Things” craze — a silly meme in which people online asked other people to write two dozen-plus bits about their personal lives. “25 Things” was a viral message, or bit of culture that spreads like a biological infection among the human population, cresting and falling like an epidemic.
What’s interesting is when Slate searched for the root cause of “25 Things” it found the idea didn’t start with 25 items — the idea of asking friends to tell X number of things about themselves, and then invite others, has been bouncing around for years. In 2008 there was a chain letter requesting 16 things; in December Twitter friends began asking each other to write seven. The concept mutated, like any disease, until it found just the right recipe of virus — apparently 25 — that allowed it to spike across the population.
Slate spoke to Lauren Ancel Meyers, a biology professor at University of Texas, who models infectious diseases. She mapped out the epidemic curve of the “25 Things” meme and found that at its height of growth, every user successfully got 1.27 other users to write their own stories. However after only two weeks, the fad crested around Jan. 30, then collapsed.
Marketers interested in making messages go viral should note that this meme didn’t scale until it had evolved from numerous strains — 7, 16 — that failed. The implication for advertisers trying to launch the next big craze is it is not enough to have one really cool idea — instead, launch a whole bunch, let people play with the messages, until Darwinian evolution tweaks one just right into a virus the population simply cannot resist. We always knew you can’t control viral propagation; we knew you had to seed the messages everywhere including in blogs; now, apparently to succeed virally, you also have to give up control over the content.
Photo: Gaetan Lee