We all get sick at times. When we do, there’s a certain probability we will transmit our sickness to other people, who will then transmit it over, and so on.

CC-BY Tina Franklin/flickr

The spread of illness can be described mathematically. For example, it can tell us how contagious a virus has to be if it is to become an epidemic, or what categories of people have higher probability of coming in contact with the germs. Or how the wave of sick people will sweep through the population.

Computers spread viruses as well. Someone opens some stupid attachment and their computer becomes infected. The virus replicates itself and starts barraging all contacts with emails to spread. But they also spread another type of infection: ideas.

We all see posts and news on social media. Sometimes we share what we saw with our friends, who might share it with their friends—and so on. If it spreads enough, that cute cat video you shared will become… well… viral.

Once you have a general model for how germs spread through the network of people you know, you can use it just as well on computer networks or social networks. The idea is the same.

But there’s another thing that we can disperse across our populations: our genes. Like illnesses and fake news, genes too spread (as generations pass), competing with each other for limited resources. And like genes, clickbait articles and viruses mutate and evolve, finding the fastest way to proliferate. Whatever it is.

Before the nonsense of PenPineappleApplePen, Rickrolling, and Doge—actually way before the internet—eminent biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme. It describes exactly what internet memes are: the “unit of cultural imitation“, a conceptual thing that replicates itself and spreads through the population, like a gene does.

Although the basic concepts of how illnesses and ideas spread are very old, the real world is—as usual—more complicated. So mathematicians and physicists are hard at work to find better, more realistic descriptions, and with them better ways to defend us from the flu—and fake news.

If you want more
  • An Italian team has recently published an example of these realistic descriptions: an efficient description of how viruses and memes spread in quite complicated populations.
  • No article on epidemics from a geeky writer is complete without mentioning Pandemic
  • A couple of years ago, CGP Grey took a deeper look at how memes evolve on the internet

Cover photo: CC0 Myriam/pixabay.com


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