What makes things on the Internet go viral?

Japanese youth invade a Tokyo bathhouse to do their version of the YouTube dance craze, the Harlem Shake. What makes some videos go viral? See more YouTube Pictures.

LOLcats. For the uninitiated – those who have somehow been able to avoid what appears to be a nonstop, social media-fueled avalanche of photos of cats doing funny things accompanied by cryptic, grammatically deficient messages – LOLcat is an Internet thing. A big one. It started in 2006 with an image of a fat cat looking at a camera, with the headline "I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER?" emblazoned across the top. Today, a family of Web sites dedicated to this and other Internet memes sees more than 20 million unique visitors each month [sources: Grossman, cheezburger.com].

That's what Web folks call viral content: Something that spreads so fast on the Internet that it dominates Facebook and Twitter news feeds and racks up page views and clicks the way Elvis Presley used to take down fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Often, it's a silly or ridiculous photo or video along the lines of the "cheezburger" cat, a weird Chinese goat or various groups of people doing the Harlem Shake. Sometimes, however, more meaningful pieces like the Kony2012 video depicting the hunt for African warlord Joseph Kony catch Internet fire. Dubbed the fastest growing viral video of all time, the clip garnered 100 million views in just six days [sources: Breakthrough Content, Invisible Children].


Of course, the Internet is chock full o' crazy pet pics, cute babies, strange dance crazes and socially responsible documentaries. Why do some of them get millions of views while others get a few hundred (or less)? It was all the way back in 350 B.C.E. when Aristotle came up with his theory for making speeches memorable. The Greek philosopher concluded that the talk must have an ethical, logical or emotional appeal. These days, it seems tugging on the heart strings is the way to go viral on the Web [source: Konnikova].

Emotion, Emotion, Emotion

Videos with important messages can go viral too. Here, supporters watch a projection from Invisible Children's Kony 2012 video campaign. The nonprofit group wants Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony captured and the video got 100 million views in six days.
© KEITH BEDFORD/Reuters/Corbis

In order for Web content to go viral, it has to make people feel something. Positive emotions – joy, inspiration, amusement, hope – are the most powerful drivers of clicks and shares, but content that spurs anger, disgust, sadness and frustration can also become viral.

Professors Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, behavioral scholars at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton business school, studied 7,000 New York Times articles in an extensive effort to understand why some of them made the paper's "most emailed" list and others did not. They found that stories including emotional content were more likely to be shared among readers than those on nonemotional topics [sources: Konnikova, Jaffe].


Berger and Milkman also determined that those articles that evoked positive emotions were more likely to be shared than those evoking negative feelings. Perhaps more importantly, the pair concluded that the level of arousal of the emotions involved also played a role in something going viral. Content that drew on high-arousal feelings like anger, anxiety and awe became viral more often than those that evoked lower-arousal emotions, such as sadness. One explanation for this is that high-arousal emotions get people worked up and more likely to take some sort of action, like sharing a story, video or photo through social media, while low-arousal emotions often have a subduing result [sources: Konnikova, Jaffe].

The easiest and most effective way to convey emotions is through headlines. Former Gawker Web virality guru Neetzan Zimmerman had a knack for drawing tens of thousands of views to simple blog posts that averaged no more than 200 words a pop. How'd he do it? By piquing Web viewers interests with snappy headlines -- Crappy Teacher Tells Kindergartner Who Pooped Her Pants To Sit On It, for instance – that grab people's attention and make them want to know more [source: Phelps].

Emotions may be key to going viral, but they're not the only thing that drives clicks and views. Never underestimate the power of human vanity.


Social Currency and Then Some

Among the other factors that can help make content go viral is the social currency it provides sharers. Although the term has different meanings in various contexts, it's used in the viral content context to refer to the idea that a person will share something in order to create the impression that he or she is "in the know," or at the cutting edge of Internet infotainment [source: Konnikova].

Think of social currency in this setting as akin to knowing a secret handshake or the password to get by the doorman at a New York City speakeasy. Sharing something like the latest LOLcats pic or referencing other viral content like the What Does the Fox Say video is like saying "Hey, I'm cool. I know what's going down on the interwebs," without hitting people over the head with the fact that your finger is on the pulse of viral culture [source: Konnikova].


If that doesn't work, try drawing on people's memories. One of the reasons Buzzfeed-style listicles are so darn popular is that they spatially organize information in a way that makes it easy for readers to remember later when they're in the sharing mood. There's also the added bonus that at least some of these stories are practical, making readers feel like they're providing useful information to others in their social circles [source: Konnikova].

And then there's one last major component of many viral stories. You know, the story itself. The higher the quality -- the better the story telling or more captivating the medium – the more likely readers and viewers will want to share it, according to experts like Berger and Milkman. Which, of course, is precisely the reason why you're about to share this here article on Twitter, right?


Lots More Information

Author's Note: What makes things on the Internet go viral?

This article isn't likely to go viral. It doesn't feature any cute shots of kittens, nor does it include video of a kindergarten teacher forcing a student to wallow in his soiled drawers. What it does have is information. Some mighty good info, if you ask me. In the rush to get more eyes on more pages, I hope we don't completely forget about communicating actual, usable knowledge.

Related Articles

  • Breakthrough Content. "What is Viral Content?" (May 4, 2014) http://breakthroughcontent.com/viral-content.html
  • Cheezburger. "About Cheezburger." (May 4, 2014) http://advertising.cheezburger.com/press
  • Grossman, Lev. "Creating a Cute Cat Frenzy." Time. July 12, 2007. (May 4, 2014) http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,1642897,00.html
  • Invisible Children. "Epic Progress Since Kony 2012." (May 4, 2014) http://invisiblechildren.com/kony/#epic-progress
  • Jaffe, Eric. "These Scientists Why Internet Stories Go Viral. You Won't Believe What They Found." Fast Company. Feb. 17, 2014. (May 4, 2014) http://www.fastcodesign.com/3024276/evidence/these-scientists-studied-why-Internet-stories-go-viral-you-wont-believe-what-they-f
  • Konnikova, Maria. "The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You." The New Yorker. Jan. 21, 2014. (May 4, 2014) http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2014/01/the-six-things-that-make-stories-go-viral-will-amaze-and-maybe-infuriate-you.html
  • Phelps, Andrew. "What makes something go viral? The Internet according to Gawker's Neetzan Zimmerman." Neiman Journalism Lab. June 11, 2012. (May 4, 2014) http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/06/what-makes-something-go-viral-the-Internet-according-to-gawkers-neetzan-zimmerman/
  • Upworthy. "How to Make that One Thing Go Viral – Just Kidding." (May 7, 2014)
  • http://www.slideshare.net/Upworthy/how-to-make-that-one-thing-go-viral-just-kidding