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How does content go viral?

Viral: a social information flow process, where many people simultaneously forward a specific information item, over a short period of time, within their social networks, and where the message spreads beyond their own networks to different, often distant networks, resulting in sharp acceleration in the number of people who are exposed to the message (Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley, Going Viral, 2013).

We often consider viral spread of content as a new phenomenon, but it isn’t. In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested in Alabama for sitting in the area of the bus reserved for white Americans. The community sprang into action, handing out leaflets and talking to friends, family and colleagues. And within just three days, around 40,000 black Americans had joined a boycott of the bus system. This showed a sharp acceleration of exposure to a message; the only difference is that the technology available to us today allows a message to reach 40,000 people in just hours or even minutes.

Content needs to be remarkable
I’d like to reach 40,000 people in a few hours, but what makes people want to share my content? Content needs to be remarkable, it needs to grab the viewer’s attention and then overcome their resistance to sharing it. If I share this content will my friends appreciate it or will they laugh at me? Is this something I want to comment on?

A great example of remarkable content is Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition, watched by almost 10 million people in just ten days. Music videos are some of the most common videos to go viral but with Susan Boyle, it was the unexpected aspect that made it remarkable. Susan is not a hot young singer with great dance moves and like the judges, the first time you watched the video you expected a ‘car crash audition’. Letty Cottin at the Huffington Post wrote about why she shared this video with her friends and why it made half of them cry. Letty explained that Susan’s audition reminded us of the perils of ‘judging a book by its cover’ and showed us a story of hope for the ‘covers that had never been cracked.’

Credibility can be key
So if my content is on the cusp of remarkability could it still go viral? This is where the source of the content becomes important. Information flows easily amongst clusters of closely connected people so the more connections you share with someone the more likely you are to share their content. The other consideration is whether you consider the source to be trustworthy.

No one was paying any attention to the speculations circulating on twitter when the US Navy SEALS killed Osama Bin Laden. However, when the White House press office announced that the President would shortly be making a press announcement twitter exploded. This was due to Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for former defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld tweeting “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.” His tweet was picked up by New York Times TV reporter Brian Selter who shared it with his followers. Both Urbahn and Selter were perceived as reliable sources of information and twitter exploded with the news, forcing traditional news channels to confirm the announcement before the President had even begun his statement. So timing is important too, your content has to simultaneously attract the attention of many people at one time.

Viral events are ubiquitous and can have a huge impact on our lives and society, yet they make up a small proportion of social content. Once content has ‘gone viral’ it never dies and Viktor Mayer-Schonberger sums up this longevity of information saying “since the beginning of time, for us humans, forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception. Because of digital technology and global networks, however, this balance has shifted. Today with the help of widespread technology, forgetting has become the exception and remembering the default.”

We’d love to hear examples of your content going viral, please share them in a comment on this post.

Comments

  1. Posted on 25 February 2014
    by NW1er

    Have a read of “contagious” by J.Berger if you haven’t done so already.

    It explores the impact of the following factors, among others, on ‘viralbility':
    social currency
    triggers
    emotion
    practical value

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