"Going Viral"

When social media rules the web, every storymaker is looking to 'go viral.' How do you define this social phenomenon? What are the pitfalls of media aiming for "virality"? And... how does it happen?


  1. 1. There is no quick and easy definition for "viral." What's considered viral might depend on one's own perspective.

  2. Still, there are some ground rules: Viral stories spread fast over a short period of time and beyond a messages original network into other communities, according to Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley, authors of the book "Going Viral."
  3. 2. We share makes us looks good. Popular items can be defined as “social currency” because they serve as a way to brag about ourselves and earn likes, retweets, shares, pins, etc. to go viral.

  4. "Viral" researcher Jonah Berger considers "social currency" the first part in his STEPPS of what makes something go viral.
  5. One of the most common ways an item goes viral is in the form of a meme. Not all memes go viral. And not everything viral is a meme.
  6. A meme, as described by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in the "Seflish Gene" (1976), is a unit of culture passed from one person to another. The primary difference between Dawkins' "meme" and the online version is that the former change unintentionally while online memes are "remixed" intentionally.

    Let Dawkins explain the evolution of the word:
  7. Richard Dawkins explains the real meaning of the word 'meme'
  8. Memes do not have to be static images. They're any item that's mimicked and "remixed" as it's shared on the Internet. They can be songs, videos, dances, etc. Non-photo examples include the Harlem Shake, Techno Viking or the #RunningManChallenge.
  9. Running Man Challenge Vine Compilation
  10. Professor Limor Shifman of The Hebrew University noted six common characteristics of YouTube memes: ordinary people, flawed masculinity, humor, repetitiveness, simplicity and whimsical content. (See abstract, "Anatomy of a YouTube Meme", 2011)
  11. Viral memes that resonate with an audience can even be profitable for the person who discovered it. The finder's brand profile goes up and marketers can pay them to promote other items.
  12. 3. "Cognitive Misers" - We tend to be drawn toward content that is less cognitively demanding. The less we have to think the more likely the content will resonate and get shared.

  13. Here are a couple common puzzles that tend to stump even the "smartest" students, simply because we're cognitive misers:
  14. Answer 1: Five cents. (Most people assume the answer is 10 cents).
    Answer 2: 47 days. (Most people assume the answer is 24 days).
  15. 4. Arousal and Virality: According to Berger and Milkman, we share stories that arouse emotions that activate us (awe, surprise, anger). Positive stories that activate us do better than negative ones that activate us.

  16. News websites today try to activate those emotions like awe or shock or anger to create viral content. See Buzzfeed or Upworthy for examples:
  17. An Upworthy editor explains how the site writes headlines: