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What Makes Videos Go Viral?

Ever wondered why some videos spead like wildfire on the Internet?

Have you ever been “Rick Rolled”? Have you ever wondered why videos such as, “Charlie Bit My Finger” or images of Tim Tebow crying spread like wildfire? What is the commonality that determines why some videos spread broadly and quickly, while others remain unknown?

The spread of videos has become commonplace and the phrase “going viral” has now entered into our vocabulary. The term “meme” has also emerged as a phrase to describe the video, audio recording, or photograph that starts to go viral online. Despite the entry of these terms into our daily use of language, the psychological processes that predict what images, audio recordings, or videos will “go viral” is a question that has been largely unexamined in experimental research.

Along with my co-authors, I recently conducted two studies designed to obtain a better understanding of what makes videos “go viral” and whether there is an impact of the source of the viral content that affects the likelihood that people will involve themselves in the spread of this content over the Internet. Our research team explored this question by investigating the role that people’s emotional response to viral content played on the likelihood that people would spread the Internet meme. In a follow up study, we investigated whether the source (i.e., a friend or classmate vs. from someone from a rival university) of the Internet meme would affect whether people would contribute to the spread of the content online.

We found that people were more likely to spread Internet memes when they had strong emotional responses to the content. It did not matter if the emotional response was positive or negative. To put it simply, “Charlie Bit My Finger” spread because people found it exceptionally funny, while memes such as “Don’t Tase me Bro(Warning: this video is shocking) made people extremely angry and also more likely to spread it. Videos found to be disgusting (I will spare you, my dear readers, from this content) were also more likely to be spread.

When we examined the source of the video — the person who shared it with them — we found that people were more likely to spread Internet memes that made people angry but only when the video came from a student from another university (or in Social Psychologist lingo, an outgroup member).

Overall, we found that Internet memes go viral due to a psychological process called emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is a process through which emotions spread like a disease and are therefore considered contagious. It can be effective because psychological contagion, a social influence process, conveys to people that the socially appropriate response is to engage in the same actions as that of the people — either physically or virtually — around them is the socially acceptable response.

More research needs to be conducted to increase our understanding of the factors that contribute to the spread of Internet memes.

Update (12/2013); See my work featured on a Sky News (UK) report: SWIPE: Viral Cat Videos And A Techie's Xmas Delight

Additional Reading:


The citation for our study: Guadagno, R. E., Rempala, D. M., Murphy, S. Q., & Okdie, B. M. (in press) Why do Internet Videos Go Viral? A Social Influence Analysis. Computers in Human Behavior. Check here for a copy. Guadagno, R. E., Okdie, B. M., & Muscanell, N. L. (in press). Have we all Just Become ‘Robo-Sapiens’? Reflections on Social Influence Processes in the Internet Age. Psychological Inquiry. Check here for a copy.
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