Social Networks

Why things “go viral”

What makes a bit of digital content quickly spread far and wide? Going viral has some common characteristics, as this look at #theDress explains.

If there is a lesson to be gleaned from the phenomenon of #theDress, it’s that “going viral” doesn’t require “influencers” nor is it particularly “predictable” (i.e., plannable – yes, I made up a word!). If you represent a business or organization, run away if the agency you’re interviewing for a job promises to create “viral content”.

There are, however, some commonalities to content that goes viral, that is, digital content characterized by speed and scope (it spreads quickly and spreads widely). Social scientists call this “contagion”. We’ll leave the discussion of how the language of illness is being used to describe communication for another day. Another shorthand: Internet meme.

1. Viral content elicits powerful emotions

Research conducted at Wharton in 2011 shows that content which generates emotions characterized by high arousal, such as anxiety, anger or amusement, “can plausibly explain” why that content is shared more often than content “characterized by low arousal, such as sadness or contentment.”

Emotional arousal leads to a state of heightened awareness and activity in both mind and body.

You can be aroused without being motivated, yet you cannot be motivated without being aroused.

Thus emotional arousal motivates us to action (sharing the content). We act based on pathos, not logos. The Greeks knew that there were different facets to persuasion, but today’s neuroscience leans towards emotion as the key to decision making, not logic.

And in the case of a retweet, Facebook share, or Tumblr reblog, or even a forwarded email, the space between decision and action is frictionless because the technology is designed that way.

What emotions did #theDress trigger? Probably, amusement, confusion or disbelief along the lines of #WTH?

2. Viral content is shared across networks

Popular digital networks today include Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube. These are overlapping communities of people, although most of us have a preferred network. Digital content may originate in one of these networks or elsewhere, such as in the wide world of news/blogs, but it is usually shared, at least initially, within a network.

In order to achieve vitality, content must cross networks.

Take #theDress, for example. The original post was on Tumblr. Tumblr as a network is designed for easy sharing (defined as reblogging, not just marking a favorite).

Just hit reblog button on a post on your Dashboard or reblog on a post on a user’s blog, then select the blog you’d like to post to from the top left corner of the post form. You can even reblog any of your own posts to your other blogs.

But the meme quickly jumped out of Tumblr, going viral because of its shares on Twitter and Facebook.

And how did it spread so quickly outside of Tumblr? Via hashtags. Hashtags are gold (no pun intended!) and essential to ease-of-sharing because they create a like-minded community, ephemeral as it may be.

Topsy analytics for #thedress
Data from Topsy on #theDress

  Tool tip: Tagboard allows you to collate hashtags from both Facebook and Twitter:

Tagboard - #theDress
Tagboard aggregates public posts from Facebook and Twitter.


Even two days later, #theDress is still trending on Twitter. (Mostly due to brands trying to capitalize on the hashtag, but that’s also another story.)

Twitter trends
Twitter trends, Saturday 28 February, 11:30 am Pacific


3. Viral content may originate with a “normal” person

One of the longest-standing memes, #UnitedBreaksGuitars, was kickstarted by a Canadian tweet from an everyday person, not an “influencer.” Ditto the “Haiti needs doctors” meme. This one seems to be the same. The Tumblr account of 21-year-old Scottish folk singer Caitlin McNeill, at the time of the post, was a normal Tumblr with lots of popular reblogs and some personal content. These are the earliest tweets that Twitter shows me (timestamps): neither are “influencers”. The third tweet shows just how quickly the hashtag went viral, as defined by “trending”.

4. We share viral political content when it is ideologically consistent

Research conducted at California State University in 2011 suggests that political bloggers “avoid posting videos that challenge their ideological predispositions and, instead, link only to those videos that confirm what they already believe to be true.” And research from Pew demonstrates how partisanship influences our choice of media sources: lots of us want to see or hear news that only reflects our worldview.


A plea to think before sharing

For those of us (raising my hand) who try to engage brain before knee-jerk reactions, emotionally-laden messages are suspect. We try to be credulous. We live and die by Snopes.

I routinely share this warning:

If something seems too good or too bad to be true, it probably is! Check before sharing!

But I’ve been caught out. I tweeted a quote from a speaker at Gnomedex one year. It was outrageous! (Cue “knee-jerk reaction”.)

Someone on Twitter almost immediately pointed me to a link that showed our speaker was, umm, talking through his hat. I tweeted a correction, sent notes to everyone who had retweeted me … and the response I got in return was the equivalent of a digital shrug. Most replied that the “general concept was right” … thus it was “okay” to share a claim that was, literally, a lie.


I know, I know. It’s hard to resist the temptation to hit the retweet button or share post button. We resist the cognitive load. But when the content is more serious than Thursday’s fun, please try.


When you share content …

If you are the content creator, make it clear in your post. If you are appropriating someone else’s content, make it clear in your post and link back to the original content!

Understand that the terms of service on who “owns” any images you upload differs by network.

If you are a media organization (newspaper, radio, TV), then you have an obligation to credit the source. You may also need to pay them.

A final word about #theDress

I initially thought the Tumblr post was trolling. In other words, I thought the controversy was fake. But by late on Thursday night I was convinced it was real, and I shared it on Facebook. Of course, I shared it in an attempt to explain how it could be possible.

Perhaps this fun story will help us understand that, literally, everyone does not see the world the same way.

I know the dress that is for sale is really blue and black.

But that photo? #goldAndWhite!

Dr. Jay Neitz, a color vision researcher at the University of Washington who runs the Neitz Color Vision Lab, couldn’t explain it. “[T]his is a huge difference. I mean, this really takes the cake… Now I’m going to spend the rest of my life working on this … I thought I was going to cure blindness, but now I guess I’ll do this.”

One explanation why this dichotomy might be possible, and how our brains run the color show, comes from ASAP Science.


Featured image source.

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

7 replies on “Why things “go viral””

What I found interesting about #TheDress was how quickly serious people entered the discussion with information about the science of perception and philosophical and moral discussions about the meaning of perception and why people can, in good faith, have totally different ideas about what something is or means. It led to people talking about perception in matters of social justice. Something quite trivial went viral, but it brought many people to meaningful conversations about matters that would never have been discussed on a national level before. So, while a business might strive to find the emotional hook to make something they want to sell go viral, the discussion around a product would not be so profound as the discussion around the dress.

Thank you! I agree — and I think it was the mystery of the thing that led to the initial discussion that centered around science. Like you, I think, I take heart that discussions turned deeper.

True, a business may try to hook us with emotion, but it’s the rare one that will succeed on either level. The Old Spice videos from several years come to mind as a positive example.

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