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Trashy Viral: Spreading Ideas That Don’t Matter


I’m coining the term Trashy Viral to describe the spread of thought-provoking let ultimately useless ideas.  These are memes that might be entertaining (like “chimpanzee riding on a Segway”) or just plain media-catchy with little underlying value (”Twitter is 40% useless babble”).

The aforementioned study by relatively unknown firm Pear Analytics went viral after a sensationalistic and completely uncritical Mashable story by Jennifer van Grove set the wheels in motion.   The incredibly unscientific, subjective study gave readers a list of unsatisfying out-of-context numbers that ultimately have no use to anyone with a serious interest – you know, like the color-coded Department of Homeland Security terror alert system.

Hey, good for the company – people like me are talking about them, I suppose.  And the blog and mainstream media love a controversial story that looks scientific, calls out something beloved, and has no concrete conclusions.  But if I were the CEO of a shop like Pear Analytics I would find this amount of negative criticism embarrassing rather than a “call for refinement of the research study.”  But I think there’s a mile of difference between something going viral because it’s deliberately useless and going viral because it’s accidentally so.

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