Hasta La Vista, Baby – memorability as virality

More research on what memes actually stick fresh from the trenches of the computer science community. In “You had me at hello: How phrasing affects memorability” researchers Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, Justin Cheng, Jon Kleinberg and Lillian Lee try to pin-point what makes language stick, and what makes a memorable quote. They study memorable quotes in IMDB and add other research material to the mix. Their hypotheses would explain why we still cite and remember phrases like “Hasta la Vista, Baby” and “Do you feel lucky, punk?”. They suggest:

In fact, comments provided by the human subjects as part of the task suggested two basic forms that such textual signals could take: subjects felt that (i) memorable quotes often involve a distinctive turn of phrase; and (ii) memorable quotes tend to invoke general themes that aren’t tied to the specific setting they came from, and hence can be more easily invoked for future (out of context) uses. We test both of these principles in our analysis of the data.

And indeed there is some evidence for this, even if the authors recognize that there are other things in a movie, for example, that makes a moment memorable. It may well be that if we studied narrative arcs and memorability we would get a slightly different story. The analysis seems at least supportive:

Memorable quotes were found to exhibit, on average (there will always be individual exceptions), significant differences from non-memorable quotes in several important respects, including measures capturing distinctiveness and generality. Our experiments with slogans show how the principles we identify can extend to a different domain.

If we try to extract from this what makes a memorable quote, the answer is distinctiveness and generality. Compared to a standard corpus of phrases in a language the phrase should stick out, and it should be general enough to be applied in different contexts. And yes, look at the following quick selection from AFIs 100 most popular movie quotes:

All check out for distinctiveness and generality. It is left as an exercise for the reader to look at the rest of the quotes, but a cursory glance seems to confirm the hypotheses. Though I have to wonder what would be a black swan here? A non-distinctive and fairly context-specific quote that we remember, what would that be? I will have to think about that.

I’ll be back.