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Q: Which phrase, more than any other, surged in utilzation in the news during the final months of the U.S. presidential campaign?
A: Obama's "lipstick on a pig" quip
For the first time, the Web has been used to track and attempt to measure the news cycle, the process by which information becomes news, competes for attention and fades, says the NY Times.
Researchers at Cornell developed algorithms to track frequently repeated short phrases, the equivalent of “genetic signatures” for ideas, or "memes," and story lines on blogs and mainstream media sites over three months (August through October, 2008).
"As our principal domain of study," the authors say in their paper, "we show how such a meme-tracking approach can provide a coherent representation of the news cycle
The phrases they track show significant diversity over short periods of time while the broader vocabulary remains stable, the authors note, but they're so abundant that they can be used as "tracers" as the phrase is mutated over time and via dissemination.
The peak of news-media attention of a phrase typically comes 2.5 hours earlier than the peak attention of the blogosphere. Moreover, if we look at the proportion of phrase mentions in blogs in a few-hour window around the peak, it displays a characteristic 'heartbeat'-type shape as the meme bounces between mainstream media and blogs
The tracking "opens an opportunity to pursue long-standing questions that before were effectively impossible to tackle. For example, how can we characterize the dynamics of mutation within phrases? How does information change as it propagates? Over long enough time periods, it may be possible to model the way in which the essential 'core' of a widespread quoted phrase emerges and enters popular discourse more generally."