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Jim Morris's Thought of the Week (or month, or year, ...)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

I would like a service that traced the origins of an idea or phrase. I’ll call it “MemeSourcing.” I would enter a phrase like “swift boating” and up would come a picture of a directed graph showing the people who said it, plus a theory of who learned it from whom. Before the web, such an endeavor would be the task of obsessive scholars hanging out in libraries and newspaper morgues. William Safire writes a column in the New York Times Magazine that tracks the history of phrases, but he doesn’t attempt to explore the relationship among various appearances.

The most important use of this service would be to help us assess the news and opinions we receive every day. It doesn’t take a computer to notice that several Bush administration people started saying “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” during the same week; but it would probably be possible to chart precisely which speechwriter thought it up if one had a history of such phrases from the group.

I think the blogosphere is a wonderful new source of useful news, but separating real facts from disinformation and mad ravings is essential. I often see startling facts from an unfamiliar source and really need some background on the source before giving the information credence.

There is a new and exciting field called genetic anthropology that does this kind of thing in a completely different context. Scientists combine DNA samples from the world’s population with everything else known about population movements to develop startlingly specific theories of prehistoric humankind.

Creating “MemeSourcing” service represents at least a few Ph.D. theses worth of work, but people adept at language processing and text data mining know lots of tricks that would get us started.

posted by Jim Morris @ 9:38 AM 


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