Collins Conference Room
Seminar

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Mentor: John Miller

Kickstarting Memes and Movements: A Distribution-Based Threshold Model

Abstract: The decisions of individual agents to participate in a social movement have collective effects. Each agent faces certain costs and benefits associated with their participation. When enough agents decide to participate, the movement is successful. However, these costs and benefits are not fixed. A movement which is perceived to be successful is considered less risky, and thus may garner more support. Likewise, a movement that is considered unlikely to succeed is considered more risky, and thus has a higher cost. Further, individuals consider not just their own utility, but also the choices of their social group. Traditional media, social media and cell phones can increase the amount of information available, thus affecting the perceptions of a campaign’s success or failure. Three scenarios which exhibit this interaction are the Arab Spring protests of 2010 -2011, Kickstarter campaigns, and the spread of internet memes. In the Arab Spring, protesters faced high participation costs and uncertain success. However, the success of the Tunisian protests influenced action in other countries. In Kickstarter campaigns, projects are only funded when they reach a specified goal. Potential donors can view the progress toward that goal before deciding to donate. Internet memes tend to spread primarily through social media, and the “utility” of continuing a meme includes its perceived popularity among a particular social group. I propose to model this interaction in order to explore the role of information on patterns of social movements. In particular, whether the perception of a movement’s success can “push” a movement into actual success. And, if, so, under what conditions?

The decisions of individual agents to participate in a social movement have collective effects. Each agent faces certain costs and benefits associated with their participation. When enough agents decide to participate, the movement is successful. However, these costs and benefits often vary based on the number of participants. More popular movements are considered more likely to succeed, and thus are less risky for the individual. Three scenarios which exhibit this interaction are the Arab Spring protests of 2010­2011, Kickstarter campaigns, and the spread of internet memes. In the Arab Spring, protesters faced high participation costs and uncertain success. However, the success of the Tunisian protests and their high visibility on social media influenced action in other countries. In Kickstarter campaigns, projects are only funded when they reach a specified goal. Potential donors can view the progress toward that goal before deciding to donate. Internet memes tend to spread primarily through social media, and the “utility” of continuing a meme includes its perceived popularity among a particular social group. I develop a model of this process, based on Granovetter’s (1978) threshold model of collective action. In this model, each agent must see a “threshold” level of participation before joining a movement. Crucial to this process is the distribution of thresholds within a population. Small changes to either the mean threshold level or the variance in thresholds can have strong effects. This explains why some countries seemingly on the brink of social change maintain the status quo, while others break into full onrevolution. My model supports Granovetter’s theory, and extends the theory to explore the relationship between a population’s mean threshold and the critical level of variance needed to push a movement into success. This analysis provides key implications for agents seeking to either promote or deter social
movements.

SFI Host: 
Juniper Lovato