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Okay, folks — PBB has been released! The trick now is to get the meme propagating.

One of the most interesting questions in memetics is the variable rate of propagation. In other words, why does one idea get passed around like a giggle at a slumber party, while another spreads haltingly, inefficiently — like a giggle at a funeral?

Take the Ashley Flores story, an email launched in May 2006 to help find a girl who was somehow abducted in Philadelphia despite the fact that she doesn’t exist.

At one point, the urban legend site Snopes.com was receiving 25,000 inquiries per day about this story. And that’s just the people who actually cared enough to try to find out if it was true — surely a tiny percentage indeed. Nearly a year later, the Ashley Flores hoax is still the #1 forwarded email message in the U.S., hitting several hundred thousand inboxes a day and rebounding effortlessly into several hundred thousand more.

Why? Because it speaks to our deepest fears, gives us an opportunity to do good with little effort, and includes a photo of an attractive, happy young teenage girl. Unfortunately, those are the characteristics that trigger our compassion and get the meme spreading like [insert simile here], a fact the Onion neatly satirizes here.

This is relevant to the book, by the way. Be patient.

How fast does a forwarded email spread? Suppose I send the Ashley Flores hoax to 20 friends at 8 am, and each of them forwards to 20 more one hour later, and the forwarding continues at that rate, every hour on the hour.

At 8 am, 20 people have the message.
At 9 am, 400 people have the message.
At 10 am, 8,000 people.
At 11 am, 160,000 people.
At noon, we’re up to 3.2 million.

At this rate, by the time I clock out at 5 pm, a hypothetical 10.2 trillion people are looking for a nonexistent, non-missing girl. That’s 900 messages for every man, woman and child who has ever lived. I just filled Genghis Khan’s inbox with crap! That should slow down the conquest of Asia Minor a bit.

Fortunately, even a meme that pushes all the right buttons doesn’t have that rate of success. Let’s say I send the Ashley message to 20 friends, but only one in four continues to forward it to twenty friends, and so on — a mere 25% rate of success per round:

At 9 am, 100 people have the message.
At noon, 62,500 people have the message.

Pfft. Sixty-two thousand people? Hardly worth getting out of bed. But not to worry: Before I get back into bed tonight, 6.1 billion people will have received the message. That’s everybody.

Compare this, now, to a meme without the pushbutton advantages of the Ashley message — one that asks us to think, for example, or make an effort of some kind, or one that challenges our preconceptions. Or suggests that you can raise ethical, caring kids without religion. Something like that.

Let’s do the math on this one. I recently forwarded an announcement about the book’s release to twenty close friends and family — including my mother, a very sharp, non-conforming secular humanist of whom I am immensely proud.

The next day she replied: I’ve gone through my entire address book, and I just can’t find a single person that I can send the announcement to!

She is concerned, of course, about the reaction from the next layer. Even though the book advocates co-existence and religious literacy and all sorts of other good and noble things, the very idea of living without religion has been anathematized so successfully over the millennia that the very idea causes some people to shut down. But — and here’s the thing — I think we tend to grossly overestimate the number of such people in the next layer.

Back to our memetic calculus. Given the fact that the woman who carried the author in her womb for nine months and who shares his worldview entirely forwarded his book announcement to no one… well, let’s calculate the likely success rate of this email meme:

At 8 am, 20 people will have received the message.
At 9 am, 20 people will have received the message.
Six months later, 20 people will have received the message.

This, for those of you without a calculator, is a slower rate of propagation. Because we tend to forward e-memes only to those whose worldview is reinforced by the message, ideas that challenge us to see the world in a different way tend to die on the vine.

Lest I’m being too subtle: Why not make a stop at the PBB home page and use the Tell a Friend feature to send the link around to twenty people? Just skip my mother.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.