How a Twitter Meme Takes Off

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less-ambitious-movies-graph-3.jpg

It's hard to know exactly why certain memes take off on Twitter. The innards of the global Twitter brain are complex and sometimes sure thing hashtags (or links) go nowhere.

A few days ago, the hashtag #lessambitiousmovies took off. Now, Twitter's Robin Sloan has dissected exactly what happened. It turns out I played a small role -- retweeting Lizz Winstead's "Breakfast at Zales" tweet -- but the general analysis is what's really interesting. What we can see here is the mechanics of Twitter virality. I'll let Sloan explain:

There's a lesson lurking here, but to see it, you need to scroll back up and look at the point marked "B" around midday GMT on January 5. The little bump you see there happens when retweets a #LessAmbitiousMovies Tweet. Now, it's pretty amazing to see a single account cause an inflection point like that. But notice that even with 5.2 million followers, Katy Perry didn't send #LessAmbitiousMovies into orbit again.

No: there was something special about the people who follow Lizz Winstead and Barracks O'Bama. There were fewer than 35,000 of them, but they were more attentive and more engaged -- and maybe just funnier, too? -- and it was their collective creativity that made #LessAmbitiousMovies briefly ubiquitous.

So add this finding to your hashtag playbook: getting a great hashtag in front of the right audience is more important than getting it in front of a big audience. Katy Perry's 5.2 million followers saw #LessAmbitiousMovies, laughed, and moved on. Lizz Winstead and Barracks O'Bama's crew of 35,000 saw it -- and they made it their own.

Image: A graph of hashtag velocity.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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