13 November 2014 ~ 3 Comments

Average is Boring

You fire up a thesaurus online and you look for synonyms of the word “interesting”. You can find words like “unusual”, “exotic”, “striking”. These are all antonyms of “average”. Average is the grey uniform shirt of the post office employee calling out the number of the next person in the queue, or the government-approved video that teaches you how to properly wash your hands. Of course “average is boring”. Why should we be interested in the average? I am. Because if we understand the average we understand how to avoid it. We can rekindle our interest for lost subjects, each in its own unique way. Even washing your hands. We can live in the tail of the distribution, instead of on top of the bell.

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My quest for destroying the Average is a follow-up of my earlier paper on memes. Its subtitle is “How similarity kills a meme’s success” and it has been published in Scientific Reports. We are after the confirmation that the successful memes are unique, weird, unexpected. They escape from the blob of your average meme like a spring snake in a can. The starting point of every mission is to know your enemy. It hides itself in internet image memes, those images you can find everywhere on the Web with a usually funny text on top of them, just like this one.

I lined up a collection of these memes, downloaded from Memegenerator.net, and I started examining them, like a full-metal-jacket drill instructor. I demanded them to reveal me all about each other. I started with their name, the string of text associated with them, like “Socially Awkward Penguin” or “Bad Luck Brian”. I noted these strings down and compared their similarity, just like Google does when it suggests “Did you mean…?”. This was already enough to know who is related to whom (I’m looking at you, band of penguins).

Then it was time to examine what they look like. All of them gave me their best template picture and I ran it through the electronic eye of SURF, an amazing computer vision software able to detect image features. Again, I patiently noted down who looked like whom. Finally, I asked them to tell me everything about their history. I collected anything that was ever said on Memegenerator.net, meaning all the texts that the users wrote when creating an instance belonging to each meme. For example, the creation of this picture:

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results in associating “If guns don’t … toast toast toast?” with the Philosoraptor meme. I condensed all this text into a given number of topics and exposed which of the memes are talking about the same things. At this point, I had all I needed to know about who is average and who could spark our interest. It’s an even more nerdy version of Hot or Not. So I created a network of memes, connecting two memes if they are similar to each other. I enlarged and highlighted in orange the memes that are widely used and popular. I won’t keep you on your toes any longer: here is the result.

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I knew it! The big, orange nodes are the cool guys. And they avoid to mingle in the center of the neighborhood. They stay on the periphery, they want to be special, and they are. This conclusion is supported by all kinds of robustness checks, but I’m not going to report them because it’s hard enough for me to keep you awake while you have to read through all this boring stuff. “Ok”, you now think, “You proved what we already knew. Good job. What was this for?”.

This result is not as expected as you might think. Let it settle down in your brain for a second: I am saying that given your name, your image template and your topic I can tell you if you are likely to be successful or not. Plenty of smart people have a proof in their hand saying that a meme’s content isn’t necessary to explain why some memes are successful and some are less memorable than your average Congress hearing. They have plenty of good reasons to say that. In fact, you will never hear me reciting guru-like advices to reach success like “be different”. That’s just bollocks.

Instead of selling the popularity snake oil, I am describing what the path to success looks like. The works I cited do not do that. Some describe how the system works. It’s a bit like telling you that, given how the feudal system worked in the Middle Ages, some people had to be emperors. It doesn’t say so much about what characteristics the emperors had. Otherwise they tell you how good an emperor already on the throne could be. But not so much about how he did get to sit on that fancy chair wearing that silly hat. By looking at the content in a different way, and by posing different questions, I started writing emperor’s biographies and I noticed that they all have something in common. At the very least, I am the court jester.

We are not enemy and we are not contradicting each other. We are examining the same, big and complex ecosystem of silly-pictures-on-the-internet with different spectacles. We all want to see if we can describe human cultural production as a concrete thing following understandable laws. If you want to send a rocket to the moon, you need to know how and why if you throw up a ball it falls back to the ground. Tedious, yes, but fundamental. Now, if you excuse me, I have a lot of balls to throw.

3 comments on “Average is Boring

  1. Memes are also dependent on their “containers” (which can be simple as a Joke Context) or their delivery systems.

    MEME: “A stitch in time saves nine”.
    CONTAINER: “Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The Brave Little Tailor” (also an episode of Mickey Mouse cartoons “Brave Little Tailor” (1938))

    If contained with other popular (or heavily marketed) content, the Meme has a longer lifespan than a mere spoken-Meme. In that content holder, a bunch of emotional pre-cues can exist to boost the Meme as memorable & repeatable.

    T-Shirt slogans are a Contextual Meme in a manner of whom decides to wear the T-Shirt. The Cute Sexy Popular Rich guys all wearing “X-Man Wolverine” designs on them equals increased popularity of “Wolverine” and any slogan he states in text on the shirt. Meanwhile if the “X-Man Wolverine” T-Shirts are worn by greasy fat smelly unpopular men, then the popularity of “Wolverine” will decrease as will any saying on the shirt risk being deemed annoying or repulsive. T-Shirt Slogans can be parasitic in popularity for the wearer from the Meme (enhancing the Meme or degrading the Meme) or symbiotically boosting. It’s a mixture of the concept of “Herd Immunity” and “In-Group Conformity” (the unpopular copy the popular “coloring schemes” for increasing their own survival).

  2. In the Memetic context of FARK’s LOL-CATURDAY, the average captioned cat picture is boosted by the image flood.
    Three funny cat pictures in a row may not be hilarious.
    Ten funny cat pictures increase the statistical odds of “I agree”.
    Sixty funny cat pictures on a webpage is the equal of a cult’s “Love Bombing” technique to force a strong emotional connection to the cult’s indoctrination techniques. The Memetic context is “This Cult Loves Me” “I Love This Cult” (which tricks the emotional & instinctual sections of the brain).

    So, the obvious question is, “Why add to the LOL cat-pile and post your own images?” Because it is a shorthand for saying a more complex thought and increases your Memetic popularity because the popular people are posting LOL-cats, so if you post a funny captioned cat image (even if you did not create it) then you become a “Popular Person” and FARK’s Caturday Cat-Gangpile continues for another week.

    It’s a variation of “Peacocking” yourself (increasing your visibility to possible sexual mates at the dangerous risk of exposing yourself to predators who might see you as more appetizing than the rest of the group of your species) which is purely an Instinctual Drive.

    Aside from that, the LOL-Cat is a shorthand for expressing complex emotions with an emotionally-stimulating comic image text (logical part of the brain reads the text, the emotional part of the brain enjoys the text if funny, the instinctual part of the brain determines if image is a threat or possible reproductive mate or food). This can be a superior method of enhancing an idea as word space is limited, choice of image is key, and it can be more effective than a page of text in gaining Personal Idea Acceptance or Group Idea Acceptance.

    As you can guess already, this LOL-Cat memetic context also attracts the Autistic or Aspergers genetic types. They analyze but also have compulsive syndromes to repost or create new funny posts as their ability to communicate with other humans in textual manners is usually hampered by their emotional or instinctual defects.

    The final group who benefits weakly from LOL-Cat Memes is the Cat Ownership segments of the population whom own cameras. They get to justify taking endless pictures of their housecats to post online. It also allows them to justify housing a non-productive foreign animal species in their homes (Instinct Violation) that is not utilized for sexual pleasure or food (Instinct Drives) and almost never for pest control. Whereas dogs are useful in many contexts for defense, hunting, towing Eskimo sleds, as food for Asians, the popularity of LOL-Cats is a subconscious justification for owning a mostly useless purring beast that eats food, poops, and scratched up the property. It gives a housecat an imaginary measure of value when no practical measure of housecat value can be justified. In that form, LOL-Cats are a desperate measure to justify the continued existence of housecats where no practical value can be found. So if humans can be emotionally-tricked into finding housecats as irrationally “inherently amusing”, the continued existence of a useless housecat can be extended socially.

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