You might think Twitter is a hellhole, but its memes are surprisingly wholesome

Have you ever checked your Twitter timeline and wondered what on Earth everyone was talking about? You step away for a few hours and suddenly your timeline is filled with people swapping memes about an event you’ve completely missed.

We studied these “memetic moments” to understand how memes emerge quickly and spontaneously in response to key social events. We found they move even faster than we had thought, sometimes emerging, spreading wildly, and beginning to dissolve in less than a day.

While Twitter and other social media are notorious as sites of abuse, racism, trolling, and other toxic content, we found very little of this material in our study of fast-moving memes.

We think the speed of movement itself may provide less opportunity for negative engagement. Memes like these may be an underappreciated element of a positive social media culture – and give hints of how social media platforms can improve.

Feral hogs

We look closely at two memetic moments in particular. The most popular was the “30–50 feral hogs” meme, which started after a weekend of mass shootings in the United States in August 2019.

In response to the shootings, and in particular the role of automatic assault rifles in the events, the musician Jason Isbell tweeted:

If you’re on here arguing the definition of “assault weapon” today you are part of the problem. You know what an assault weapon is, and you know you don’t need one.

The tweet was popular, being liked and retweeted thousands of times.

Among the replies, one stood out. William McNabb, who was not a high-profile user at the time, responded:

Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30–50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3–5 mins while my small kids play?

The seeming absurdity of the response, along with the format of the tweet, made for ideal meme material. The jokes soon began, and the meme quickly evolved and began referencing other Twitter memes.

For example, it could be remixed as song lyrics, or as alternative movie titles. While very funny, the meme highlighted the flimsy nature of some arguments for high-powered, rapid-fire weapons, and also led to a discussion of other serious issues, such as the ecological destruction caused by feral hogs in many parts of rural America. Feral pigs destroy crops and damage delicate native vegetation.

As researchers, we had both watched memes like this appear and quickly disappear on our respective feeds many times. We wanted to understand how these memes functioned in the way they did.

How to study a Twitter meme?

To begin untangling the dynamics of these “memetic moments” we had to take a slightly different approach to gather Twitter data. In the past memes were often organized by hashtags, but as that is now rarely the case we conducted searches of words associated with popular Twitter memes.

For instance, we collected tweets containing the term “30–50 feral hogs”, finding a total of 54,086 tweets in the week after it first appeared.

We then graphed these tweets over time to study the dynamics. What we found was striking – the memes appeared sharply and with immense speed, and were then followed by a quick decline.

In the case of the 30–50 feral hogs meme, the initial peak only lasted 12 hours – less than one day – before it quickly dissipated.