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The Short, Wild Life Of A Lipsticked Pig

The 2012 U.S. presidential campaign is kicking into high gear. And you know what that means.

Political memes will soon be hatching from their electronic eggs, flying through myriad channels of the media, and buzzing annoyingly in your ears.

Memes are kernels of content that spread rapidly across the internet. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny their proliferation or their impact on our mass consciousness.

Remember the 2008 campaign? Lipstick on a pig? Joe the Plumber?

To explore the dynamic life cycle of memes, researchers at Cornell and Stanford tracked the top memes from the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. One source of data they used was the relative number of searches performed for a phrase on Google. This isn’t a definitive measure of a meme’s true life span—it has some serious limitations—but it does provide a general sense of its e-existence.

The Minitab time series plot shows how Google searches increased for two famous memes during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign.
  

The Y scale shows the relative increase in searches compared to the usual number of Google searches for the phrase over all of 2008. Searches for “lipstick on a pig” shot up nearly 40-fold at the beginning of September 2008, then quickly dropped back down by the end of the month.

Just as we were growing tired of lipsticked pigs, we suddenly became fascinated by plumbers named Joe. Our heightened interest in Joe and his political plunger appears to have lasted nearly two months. A virtual eternity in the modern mind!

Note: For a more extensive analysis of political memes from the 2008 presidential campaign (one which considers over 60 mutations of the phrase "lipstick on a pig"!) see the original paper, Meme-tracking and the Dynamics of the News Cycle

Stat Memes, Anyone?

Not all memes are political catch phrases, of course. Many memes live simply to entertain, such as popular visual images to which users append their own (sometimes) amusing captions.

You've probably seen these well-known examples, which I've updated with statis-ticklish captions.

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First-World Problems

(A pity she didn’t double-click the bar chart in Minitab, choose the Custom fill pattern, and then select the lovely Rose hue she so adores.)

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Success Kid

(Look at him. He may be the only person in the world who doesn’t need to perform a prospective power analysis. The rest of us should choose Stat > Power and Sample Size.)

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Scumbag Brain

 

(Silly, squiggly old brain. Why didn’t you think of clicking Help from any Minitab dialog box?)

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Socially Awkward Penguin

(His formal attire didn't help either. But hey, he is very popular in certain multivariate clusters: Stat > Multivariate > Cluster...).

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Condescending Wonka



(This smart Alec may have a few wonky comments on your residuals as well. Best to click Graphs when you set up the regression analysis and display the Four-in-one residual plots, so you can check the model assumptions--before he does!)

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Business Cat

(A true Quality Companion, he is known to favor fishbone diagrams):

 

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The Most Interesting Man in the World

(He also enjoys graffiti art, Hegelian dialectics, and Minitab public training sessions.)

So where might these visual memes be in their online life cycles? Take a look:
   
 
  

Socially Awkward Penguin appears to have been around the longest. Condescending Wonka appears to have come onto the scene relatively recently (about February 2012) and may have already reached his peak. It's still hard to tell, though. After all, Success Kid shows some pretty good staying power--including a pronounced second peak of popularity, after the initial decline that followed his first peak.

Caution: In this case we can't use the plot to compare the relative popularity of the memes by comparing the heights of their peaks. Recall that the Y-value represents the relative increase in searches for each meme compared to the usual number of searches for that phrase.

Where Is that Fascinating Fellow?

Notice I didn't include "The Most Interesting Man in the World" in the times series plot.

Why? Because, according to data from Google Trends, a heightened search for "The Most Interesting Man in the World" has been going on for quite a few years--long before the visual meme was even born.

That means that searches for that meme are likely confounded with searches performed by users who are actually trying to find the most interesting man in the world, via Google.

Will they ever find him? My guess is that their search is only going to intensify with time, as the minds of potentially interesting men become increasingly dulled by chronic exposure to thousands of flittering memes.

Meme Me Back

Can you think of a statistical or Minitab-related caption for any of the visual memes? Give it a shot.

Leave a comment and suggest your own original caption. (We can only publish those fit for family viewing.)

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Comments

Name: Cody Steele • Thursday, July 19, 2012

What we really need is a Minitab cover of Call me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen ;)


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