What makes something go viral on the internet?
Making people angry.
In 2010, two researchers at the Wharton School looked at seven thousand articles that made it onto the New York Times Most E-mailed List. (A story from the Times is shared on Twitter once every four seconds, making the list one of the biggest media platforms on the web.) The researchers’ results confirm almost everything we see when content like the sensational ruin porn of Detroit goes viral. For me it confirmed every intuition behind my manipulations.
According to the story, “the most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes” [emphasis mine]. I will say it again: The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger. No wonder the outrage I created for Tucker’s movie worked so well. Anger has such a profound effect that one standard deviation increase in the anger rating of an article is the equivalent of spending an additional three hours as the lead story on the front page of NYTimes.com.
And if you can’t do anger, just make sure to take people to an emotional extreme, one way or the other:
A powerful predictor of whether content will spread online is valence, or the degree of positive or negative emotion a person is made to feel. Both extremes are more desirable than anything in the middle. Regardless of the topic, the more an article makes someone feel good or bad, the more likely it is to make the Most E-mailed list. No marketer is ever going to push something with the stink of reasonableness, complexity, or mixed emotions. …in studies where subjects are shown negative video footage (war, an airplane crash, an execution, a natural disaster), they become more aroused, can better recall what happened, pay more attention, and engage more cognitive resources to consume the media than nonnegative footage. That’s the kind of stuff that will make you hit “share this.” They push your buttons so you’ll press theirs.
Sadly, we just don’t respond as strongly to reality:
As Chris Hedges, the philosopher and journalist, wrote, “In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion.”