Psychology of Viral Content
Viral content is, arguably, the dominant form of media on social networking sites, and a major force across the Internet as a whole. The content itself varies: cat videos, memes, momentous news, trypophobic images, and even outrageous acts of violence. Regardless, there is a central criterion of this content – universally, it triggers a strong, emotional reaction from the viewer. Whether it is sadness, happiness, anger, or disgust, viral media intensifies our emotions. The significance of viral content online has expanded to the extent that viral marketing has become a new discipline of business, which calls for an examination of the nature of viral media.
Viral content has existed since the early stages of human civilisation, and has had an intimate relationship with the prevalent technology of the time period in which it is created. Ancient religious stories are one of the oldest examples. It is argued by some anthropologists that religions functioned as a form of social “virus”, improving social cohesion by promoting pro-social behaviour, for the sake of survival. The importance of the Dreamtime in the identity of Indigenous Australia, which originated thousands of years ago, is perhaps testament to the strength of this form of “viral” information. The persistence of Dreamtime stories also demonstrates how content spread and persevered via the earliest medium of communication available – that of spoken words.
Further examples coincide with new technology appearing in the historical narrative. Paper, as the first “permanent” form of transferring information to other people, can be seen as one of the first facilitators. Ancient texts which still survive to this day, such as Sun Tzu’s Art of War, are proof of how widespread specific examples became. The printing press, capable of producing printed media far more rapidly than manual transcription, can be seen as another example of a technology facilitating the rapid, “viral” transfer of information. It is at least partly responsible for perhaps the truest example of viral content in the 19th Century: the Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The explosion of the series’, and the character’s, popularity is evident in Sherlock Holmes’ death at the Reichenbach Falls, which led to more than 20,000 subscription cancellations to the Strand magazine . Radios and televisions, and their ubiquity in households in the 20th century, contributed to the generation of viral content more similar to what is seen currently, from the fear-inducing news of World War II, to dramas and talk shows.
Currently, we encounter most viral content online, through social media. Along with the increased flexibility of online platforms for content-sharing, the potential reach of viral content has steadily increased. Perhaps it can be inferenced that globalisation, through the expansion of social media, is a major contributor to growing the limits of accessibility of viral content. Our intimate connection to social media also mandates that we are inevitably exposed to all kinds of viral content every day.
Why does viral content, in its current form, become “infectious”? One key factor is the important role that emotion plays in our decision-making process and subsequent action. In Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio claims that “we are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think”, a claim that our emotions determine our thinking more than our reason does . Berger and Milkman  seem to link this hypothesis with viral media in their finding that content which evokes a strong emotional response, was more likely to be shared than content which evokes a weak emotional response. It has also been found that the specific emotion attached to the content, and the level of attractiveness or averseness, has less of an impact on diffusion than the strength of the response . This explains why content which popularises quickly is generally hilarious rather than funny, outrageous rather than offensive, and depressing rather than sad. The strongest and most extreme reactions lead to the highest likelihood of “liking” and “sharing”, which, in turn, drives more views.
Another contributor to the virality of content is whether the content is seen to have inherent value by the consumer. The usefulness of knowledge in self-enhancement and self-presentation (in other words, in improving one’s image) grants the knowledge a higher likelihood of becoming popularised. This was shown by Wojnicki and Godes, who found that the generation of word-of-mouth reviews of a consumer experience is more likely when those reviews had a positive correlation with the desire to self-enhance; in other words, when someone encounters content they are interested in, they are more likely to be attentive to the content and share it in order to “show off”. Improving one’s self-presentation through showing off knowledge is why some news items, like the discovery of new exoplanets among non-scientists, become widely popular if the title of the article is catchy enough.
While the specific psychology behind viral content varies between individuals, where evoked emotions and perceived value both play a role, it is undoubtable that these factors come into play in viral marketing. Businesses frequently take advantage of content that is either already viral, or anticipated to go viral, as a method of promotion or to gain advertising revenue. Advertisements are often embedded within or between particularly popular viral videos on Facebook, for example. However, the nature of viral content can also work against businesses. An offended customer’s complaints on social media can quickly become viral, due to the strong emotion of anger and anxiety they carry, as well as the shared novelty associated with attacking a corporation.
For laymen (the author included!), distant from the world of business and marketing, the contagiousness of such content means that there is a specific need to have a critical view of the viral news or content we see. This is particularly true when the content evokes strongly negative emotions, or where the content asserts something highly surprising, as these are the most likely to be spread very quickly. There are enough examples of unsuspecting aunties and uncles believing articles from The Onion for the warning to have sufficient weight.
In a society of social media, where connections are instantly made and messages travel thousands of kilometres in less than a second, viral content is produced and shared substantially faster than factory-manufactured goods. Our physiological and social psyches easily draw us to viral content and goad us to further distribute it. We ought to all be hyper aware of the volatility of viral content, to avoid becoming entangled in its production and reproduction.
- Henrich, J., The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter. 2017, Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press.
- Armstrong, J. (2018). How Sherlock Holmes changed the world. BBC. from http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20160106-how-sherlock-holmes-changed-the-world
- Damasio, A.R., Descartes' Error : Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. 1994, New York, NY, USA: G. P. Putnam.
- Berger, J. and K.L. Milkman, What Makes Online Content Viral? Journal of Marketing Research, 2012. 49(2): p. 192-205.
- Wojnicki, A.C. and D. Godes, Signaling Success: Word of Mouth as Self-Enhancement. Customer Needs and Solutions, 2017. 4(4): p. 68-82.
- Nelson-Field, K., Riebe, E., & Newstead, K. (2013). The emotions that drive viral video. Australasian Marketing Journal (AMJ), 21(4), 205-211.