What Goes Viral in Cyberspace

To go viral, it must be positive, arouse strong emotion, and solve problems.

Posted Feb 26, 2016

When readers select from an online menu of casual reading, what do they want? Researchers set out to solve this problem by analyzing what gets shared amongst friends and acquaintances.

One study examined the content of the most emailed blog posts in the New York Times site (1). It analyzed the content electronically and determined which features were predictive of articles that made it to the most-emailed list.

Their findings are generally supportive of an evolutionary perspective but contain surprises.

There is a bias toward sharing cheerful posts, those that evoke strong emotions, and those that solve practical problems.

A Positive Tone

Hedonism may be the arbiter of life for all complex animals. They approach sources of pleasure and avoid pain and distress. “Now that you are 40, expect more pain and bereavement” is guaranteed to receive fewer clicks than “Now that you are 40, expect to experience more pleasure.”

Presumably for this reason, readers choose to share stories having a positive tone but are turned off by sadness. This might well be because we feel a duty to cheer our friends up and avoid dragging their morale down with dismal pieces about pain and suffering.

Strong Emotions: Anxiety, Awe, Anger

Now that the stock market is declining, the financial blogs are replete with images of nasty-looking bears who look like they want to make a meal of us. When things go better there are bulls that also look threatening.

Given that survival is the first imperative of all living creatures, humans pay attention to serious threats and prioritize them over everything else, which is why the news is replete with stories of deadly violence and creates an impression that the world is far more threatening than it actually is.

Consistent with these ideas, blog posts were more viral if they expressed anxiety. Surprisingly, posts were slightly more viral if they expressed anger, or awe, rather than anxiety.

All strong emotions increase physiological arousal, however, and that may be why readers are motivated to share such content (1).

Solving Problems for the Reader

Blogs are capable of solving two main types of problem. One is informational. The writer provides the reader with easily digested explanations of topics that had been confusing to them. One example of such a viral post by this author is “Why atheism will replace religion” that explains why the rise of affluence is correlated with a worldwide decline in religion.

The other main type of problem that a blogger can solve is practical, or “how to.” Examples include: “How to form friendships in a new city,” or “How to help your child cope with bullying.”

New York Times posts that are informative and interesting, or that solve practical problems are more likely to be emailed. Indeed the practical value of information adds a viral boost that is greater than anxiety (but less than anger).

Berger, J., and Milkman, K. L. (2012). What makes online content viral? Marketing research, 49 (2), 192-205.

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