Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Meme tracking as a crowd sourcing killer app

Posted in business and convergent technologies by Timothy Platt on December 16, 2011

The internet as a whole had its start in a project that was sponsored by a US government agency called ARPA (the Advanced Research Projects Agency). The original goal of this project was to design and build a command, control and communications (C3) system that could keep a widely geographically dispersed network of guided ballistic missile silos and other military sites, and civilian and military command and control sites connected – and even if network nodes were destroyed from nuclear attack. The goal in this was to build a system that could reroute communications on the fly around gaps and interruptions, maintaining networking integrity and functionality even in the face of direct assault. And an ideal system would also be scalable too, capable of adapting to larger and larger systems with more and more nodes, and with network flow kept efficient with scale increases.

And then the fruits of this project went public and the public internet was born – and no one in the ARPA days of this endeavor could have imagined what would come next. When every node, human-managed and automated is included, the number of working, active nodes that now connect together through the internet at any given time number is in the many billions – and by some counts in the trillions and certainly when every internet connected RFID chip is included.

ARPA became with a name change DARPA (the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency) and this organization has continued to call for proposals in competition for project funding, and with goals of reaching extreme cutting edge objectives. And this posting, at least on one level, is about a current DARPA initiative: designing and developing an online meme tracker.

The term meme was originally coined by a British evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, as a take on the word gene and it refers to ideas, behaviors and styles that are transmitted, shared and perpetuated within communities in a manner analogous to that of genes in a population. And memes are said to spread and evolve according to principles analogous to those that describe biological evolutionary and population genetics processes.

DARPA includes this initiative as part of a larger project called Social Media in Strategic Communication in which the US Defense Department wants to “develop automated and semi-automated tools that allow for the detection of idea and concept formation, the ability to track their spread, as well as whether they are deceptive.” (See and Solicitation Number: DARPA-BAA-11-64.)

Basically, the Defense Department seeks to be able to systematically mine social media and the interactive communications of an increasingly Web 2.0 world for intelligence and insight that can be brought to the battlefield environment – an environment increasingly dominated by hit and run, special forces and irregular forces action and were adversaries and potential adversaries increasing communicate and share information online. And a principle goal in this is to significantly take chance out of the equation in finding the right information and the right communications threads in the sea flow of overall internet traffic.

I add that the US Department of Homeland Security also has an interest in this, as a route to more effectively identifying terrorist threats and their supporting organizational infrastructures.

• And I also add that I see a striking parallel between this and the original project proposal solicitation that ARPA sent out when their project goal was to develop those more robust networks – with that leading to the birth of the internet.
• In this case, meme tracking and the larger goal of Social Media in Strategic Communication is to automate and make scalable the capacity to search, find and intelligibly connect with and utilize underlying concept flows within the sometimes seemingly undirected torrents of social media and online experience.

The networking concepts, approaches, technologies and architectures that ARPA sought did work in achieving those initial goals of making defense-related C3 systems more robust and reliable. But that was just a small beginning to the much greater that followed. My guess is that this more recent Web 2.0 oriented project proposal solicitation will succeed too and that it will also have its greatest long term impact in unanticipated general-public-facing applications.

I see a variety of potential uses for this that extend far beyond the defense goals of the initial DARPA solicitation, and I have in fact identified one in the title of this posting – meme identification and tracking as a crowd sourcing killer app. In this, the entire flow of social media communications could at least potentially become raw material for both identifying community and marketplace needs and priorities, and also for identifying ideas and approaches as to how best to meet them.

That would fundamentally change the nature of marketing, and market research, and of product and service design and for every business, every industry and every conceivable marketplace. More than that, this technology has the potential for radically changing the democratic process and how people in general participate in the larger society.

I expect to come back to this in future postings, to further discuss possible applications to this capability under development. As a final thought here, I will simply state that if I am right in principle here, the real and most impactful emergent and disruptive applications of this will be ones that no one would anticipate now but that will become fundamental to how we communicate and create and share information – just as the internet itself has come to be taken for granted even as it has revolutionized the world.

You can find this and related postings at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time.

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