What are the books that have stayed with you? Top 100 titles from Facebook meme collated

September 9, 2014 by · 2 Comments 

What’s better (or stickier) than a viral meme on social media? An algorithm that aggregates the results of that meme. Which is just what Facebook has employed with the seemingly endless lists of books people have been posting to their status updates.

The rules of the meme are simple: Facebook users are asked to post the titles of ten books that have “stayed with them”: not great books, or books of lasting literary merit, but books that have been important or influential in an individual reader’s life. (There is obviously overlap here, and it is clear that some readers have given more consideration to curating their lists than is intended. The “rules” of the meme state that the compiler of the list should not think too much before responding.)

In a Facebook blog post, Lada Adamic and Pinkesh Patel point to a sample of 130,000 status updates from the final two weeks of August 2014 that site administrators collated and analyzed to determine the 100 books most frequently named by users (Nineteen Eighty-Four is at number twelve).

The heavyweight champion should come as no surprise: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books led the charge decisively. At least, this should come as no surprise until one notes that the average age of the user in this “anonymized” aggregation of data is thirty-seven. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first volume of the series, was published in 1997, when the average age would have been twenty. Thus, the books that have overwhelmingly stuck with the average adult reader whose data has been mined for this purpose comprise a series of books for children. (The Hunger Games YA trilogy, the first of which was published in 2008 – eleven years after the first Harry Potter novel – clocks in at number eight.) There is an interesting study to be done about whether this reflects the increasing sophistication of children’s literature, cultural infantilization, or something specific about adults who use social media.

Other titles on the list seem reflective of books that make an impact on readers at a younger stage in life: To Kill a Mockingbird (number two); The Lord of the Rings (number three); The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (number seven); The Chronicles of Narnia (number ten); Little Women (number thirteen); Anne of Green Gables (number twenty-one); The Giving Tree (number forty-one); The Outsiders (number forty-nine); The Secret Garden (number fifty-three); and so on.

Women outnumber men in Facebook’s aggregate data by more than three to one, and the Facebook blog post provides a graphic that breaks down by gender the titles mentioned. (Women more frequently name Wuthering Heights, The Color Purple and Pride and Prejudice, while men more frequently single out Brave New World, The Stand, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.)

One interesting note involves the analysis of correlation between friends liking similar books; in brief, the Facebook’s data indicate that the long tail is active, at least across social media:

We computed the number of books shared between lists linked via tags, which was a mere 0.4 books on average! This number was 4 times greater than the overlap of 0.1 books between any two random lists. It is also an underestimate, since our automated matching identifies only 5.3 books/list on average (rather than the full 10), due to matching on just the 500 most commonly mentioned titles. Nevertheless, the low overlap underlines that even in a world of relatively few highly successful bestsellers, lists of favorites tend to be rather different, even between friends.

This seems to indicate a range and vibrancy in the responses of people participating in the meme; even Harry Potter appears on only 21.08 percent of the surveyed lists. Which is a good thing for a healthy reading culture. On Facebook, at least, there is room for both Hamlet and Tuesdays with Morrie.


2 Responses to “What are the books that have stayed with you? Top 100 titles from Facebook meme collated”
  1. Martin Ainsley says:

    Oh, statistics . . . You were right the first time: Harry Potter topping the list should come as no surprise, and without more information should not be read as having any significant relation to the average age of the participants. These books were immensely popular among a certain age group which, as you suggest, would have been well under 20 in 1997. If there was no similarly galvanizing book or series of books for the cohort of participants above that average (I’m a comfortable 7 years above it, and I don’t recall anything like that in my youth), it’s easy to imagine that a big chunk of the younger participants put a Potter book on their lists while the older participants’ choices were more diverse.

    Just to take the stats you’ve given here, we can do a rough and dirty calculation. First, let’s assume the average is also the mean. Now, we note that Harry Potter was on 21% of the lists. If we were told that not one single person who was over 20 in 1997 listed a Harry Potter, the corollary would be that 42% of the younger half of the group did so. A big number, but when I think back to the near-hysteria around the first film coming out, even a figure like that would not surprise me.

    If the mean age were lower than the average, this proportion could be even smaller. There are other possible glitches in this data that could open up all sorts of interpretations, but you get the idea. Sorry for my pedantry.

  2. Martin Ainsley says:

    * I think I meant median, not mean! (It’s been a while since I studied any statistics. The perils of pedantry.)