Teaching Examples

The "36 hours" meme and how it spread
July 17, 2006, 9:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Sometimes I get a little tired of seeing how the mainstream media recycle news I already know. Here’s a good example of how a meme propagates online:

A fascinating comment from Tom Abate (July 11, 2006, when it was already apparent that the meme factory had gone into overdrive):

… this observation is based on a one-month survey in 2002 that examined how 250,000 Hungarians consumed 4,000 news stories posted on that country’s most popular web portal.

That should not denigrate the work of Dezso, et al., one bit, but it should add a grain of salt — er, context — to the attention being paid.

Also, let’s not forget that the findings indicate a half-life, not unlike that of radioactive materials. Half-life is essentially infinite. Does the 36-hour rule say “Delete your content after 36 hours,” or instead, “Tag your content and keep it online forever”?

Finally, a meaty portion from the article itself:

While we often tend to think that the visitation of a given document is driven only by its popularity, our results offer a more complex picture: the dynamics of its accessibility is equally important…. the decay laws we identified are likely generic, as they do not depend on content, but are determined mainly by the users’ visitation and browsing patterns.

A lot of visitors to news Web sites have no patterns relevant to that particular Web site, of course — their habits may focus on a mix of aggregator sites, ad hoc searches, and blog referrals.

… the observed power law decay most likely characterizes the dynamics of the original news article [the blog post, for example] … if we are not exposed to a news item while prominently featured, it is unlikely that we will know what to search for. The accelerating news cycle raises several important questions: How long is a piece of news accessible without targeted search? What is the dynamics of news accessibility?

This is a good foundation for future research.

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4 Comments so far
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I now have three differently dated versions of the pdf on my desktop. What they all have in common is that they predate publication in the academic journal Physical Review E. I was one of those who picked up the story from PhysicsWeb and wrote on July 10 about it showing the importance of old news to those who believed yesterday’s copy was only fit to wrap chips.

There is a danger here for scientists as well as journalists. Multiple versions of material from before the version accepeted for publication in a reviewed journal can only confuse and, possibly, result in inaccuracies.

Comment by Andrew Grant-Adamson

I also find myself annoyed when I hear about a news story offline that I saw online days earlier. Don’t worry … you’re not the only one!

Comment by junger

Andrew is right: the Spiegel story (and therefore my blog post) last year was based on a non-peer-reviewed preprint published on ArXiv.

Besides Der Spiegel, nobody took any notice until a peer-review journal published more or less the same paper a year later (and probably put out a press release).

But what’s the “danger” here? I can only dissern cosmetic differences (and one less citation) in the peer reviewed version.

Should Der Spiegel not have reported the findings of a team including a well-known researcher on networks? Should I not have noted their story on my blog?

More generally, should journalists never report ongoing research until the (notoriously slow) peer review process has been completed?

Comment by Martin

There are really TWO issues here, I think: (1) The publication before peer review has implications for the reliability of the research findings. (2) The other issue is the obvious “link trail” that leads (eventually) to The New York Times.

Today we see many things first on Digg. We are tipped to the original source early, and then (to me, at least), the NYT report looks late and slow.

Note that I said “looks” — it’s my perception as a news consumer. I know good reporting takes time. My perception, though, becomes that the NYT is slow.

Comment by Mindy McAdams

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