What makes a story go viral?

I have been thinking a lot about the topic of why some stories go viral (or at least get shared widely) and why others don’t get so much as 10 likes. What makes a story, Facebook post, Blog post or Tweet go viral? It’s been a bit of an obsession of mine. Every time a story pops up in my news feed that has 999,993 shares and 10-ganglion likes I wonder what made it so much more special than other, similar, stories?

clips-from-ellaThe most recent of these perplexing viral stories was of 8-year-old Ella Scott giving her meal to a homeless man. Her father, Eddie, caught the interaction on his cell phone. Newsrooms and popular bloggers picked up the story, which only gave it more traction. It is a sweet story of a child teaching the world a lesson about selflessness. But I wondered, out of all the selfless acts that have gone unnoticed, unshared and un-praised by the public, what made this video different?

I started thinking about ways to do scientific-grade studies or how I could put together a test group of friends to put out content and see what factors contributed to the making of a viral video. So, when I saw The New Yorker article  “The six things that make stories go viral …” I was excited.

Maria Konnikova’s article did offer a few words that gave a peek into why certain content goes viral, but ultimately didn’t really answer my deeper questions. I wanted some substance, something that would answer my questions and confirm or change my conceptions. I guess I’ll just have to keep looking.

What her article did offer was an outline of the type of content that tends to get shared more often. Though, I don’t think I’ll ever truly understand why LOLcat is so popular—its humor is completely lost on me. Konnikova’s connection to Aristotle’s ethos, pathos and logos principles made a lot of sense. Stories should have ethical, emotional and logical content. Those are core principles that speak to our need to be connected, feel good and make sense of the world around us. It also makes sense that positive or shocking messages would get our attention. Again, that fulfills our human nature of curiosity and “the feels” (oh my gosh, shoot me if I ever use that phrase again). But I think Konnikova’s most valid point was social capital.

I believe that a person’s social capital has a lot to do with how much a story is shared. If you have friends whom you believe to be higher on the social hierarchy than others, you will be more willing to share the content they put out, as opposed to sharing what might be more valid content from those who are lower your “popularity scale.” That too is human nature. We want to be associated with what is pretty, popular and gets the most attention.

I had a friend in high school that once said, “I honestly don’t know why [the popular] group is popular. I mean, who decided [the people in the popular group] were popular and someone else wasn’t?” This was insightful considering she was speaking of herself and close friends. Personal conclusion number one: Apparently, none of us ever really left high school.

clips-from-ella2Getting back to the viral video of 8-year-old Ella, when I first saw the video I thought, “how sweet.” My immediate second thought was, “why did Ella’s video go viral when I know so many other kids (my own included) who have done this same thing and didn’t so much as a thumbs-up?”

Now, before you call me the Wicked Witch of the West for calling out sweet little Ella, my point isn’t really about Ella at all. Ella’s story just reminded me of the nagging little question that keeps floating around in my head—why do some people’s actions get massive amounts of attention and praise and other’s don’t?

My theory: popularity begets popularity. Hopefully one day soon someone will study the phenomena of perceived popularity (e.g. social capital) and its effects on content sharing. Because if John Oliver can make the subject of net neutrality popular, my theory has promise.

FullSizeRenderGuest author: Kristi Reed is a freelance writer and photographer living in SE Asia with her family. She is actively engaged in combating global injustice, ending modern-day slavery and documenting current world events. Kristi is currently seeking a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University.

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