Jesus Christ named history's most successful meme

Authors of a new book used internet-based metrics to declare Christ 'the most significant person ever' 

Jesus Christ has been named the most successful historical meme, beating figures from past and present to be placed top of a database listing the significant figures through time.

In their book, Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank (Cambridge University Press, 2013), Steven Skiena and Charles Ward devised an internet-based ranking system to measure meme strength and compare historical reputations.

Jesus, the Christian Messiah, beat playwright William Shakespeare, philosopher Aristotle and Macedonian King Alexander the Great to the top spot. Notably, there are no female historical figures in the top ten.

Meanwhile, despite his devoted following, pop star Justin Bieber was ranked much lower down at 8,633. Although 'Baby' fans may wish to disagree, he was found to be less historically significant than other figures.

The authors say their internet-based metrics ranking system analyses the English version of Wikipedia "and other data sources" to list historical figures "just as Google ranks web pages", estimating their fame and the size of their following. From this, the book identifies the most significant people.

Mr Skiena, a professor of computer science at Stony Brook University, New York, said each historical figure was ranked by "aggregating the traces of millions of opinions in a rigorous and principled manner".

Speaking to The Independent, he explained: "We analyse the Wikipedia pages of over 800,000 people to measure quantities that should correspond to historical significance. We would expect that more significant people should have longer Wikipedia pages than less notable folk, because they have greater accomplishments to report.  

"The Wikipedia pages of people of higher significance should attract greater readership than those of lower significance. The elite should have pages linked to by other highly significant figures, meaning they should have a high PageRank, the measure of importance used by Google to identify important web pages."

However, the database does not directly factor in social media sites, such as Twitter or Facebook, when deciding on the significant person's ranking. Mr Skiena said while their analysis did not explicitly incorporate social networks, "the same forces which contribute to popularity on Twitter or Facebook are reflected by page hits and edits on Wikipedia pages".

When asked about the absence of female figures in the top ten, Mr Skiena said: "There are only ten spots to fit all historical figures since the beginning of time. The traditional paths to historical achievement were closed to women for up until very recently. 

"It is telling that our two highest rated women were both British queens - Elizabeth I ranked 13 and Victoria ranked 16. Being queen was a role open to women, but even here the rules of succession favoured putting men on the throne."

Based on meme strength, and how successfully the idea of the person has proliferated, Jesus was found to be 'the most significant person ever'.

Mr Skiena added: "An important aspect of our method is that we systematically decay the score of contemporary figures to reflect the loss from living memory which inevitably occurs over three to four generations.

"The significance of Jesus is shown by his mindshare today fully 2,000 years after his death. We don't see the same happening for Justin Beiber."

The top ten significant figures were ranked by Mr Skiena and Mr Ward as follows:

1. Jesus
2. Napoleon
3. William Shakespeare
4. Mohammad
5. Abraham Lincoln
6. George Washington
7. Adolf Hitler
8. Aristotle
9. Alexander the Great
10. Thomas Jefferson

A meme is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation." An internet meme tends to fall under the second definition, an "image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations."

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