The Secret of Viral Success Is There Is No Secret of Viral Success

The problem with most ideas about how to make something "sharable" on the Web isn't that they're obviously wrong. It's that they're so obvious.
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It's an indication of our great fortune, our great decadence, or both, that when you type the word "viral" in a Google search bar, the first result isn't an influenza or meningitis. It's videos.

While the former two subjects capture the attention of real scientists, the secrets of virality have captured the less-than-purely-scientific attention of marketers. These sociologists of the social Web claim they can distill cultures of cat GIFs and quirky videos to their essence and extract the very thing that made them infectious in the first place.

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There are cottage industries for every strand of self-improvement, so naturally there is a healthy supply of scientists and marketers who are happy to share with you the "secrets" of making stuff "go viral." Jonah Berger's new book Contagious: Why Things Catch On is a hallmark of the genre -- a younger cousin of Made to Stick -- and as a collection of anecdotes, it's perfectly interesting. Berger boils down his theory of stickiness to a portable acronym, STEPPS, which starts with Social currency (people share things that make them look good) and Triggers ("top of mind, top of tongue") and ends with Stories. He explains, most memorably, that a study of the New York Times most-emailed list found that education and health topics dominated the top. Stories with gosh-wow revelations about the world trigger "physiological arousal," he said, putting readers in a mood to share their awe with friends.

Then there is Thales S. Teixeira, an assistant professor of marketing with Harvard Business School, who recently published an essay, "The Key to Viral Videos." In one study, he watched participants watching YouTube ads, registering their facial reactions. "The data showed that evoking surprise was the best way to attract attention," he concluded, "while evoking continuous moments of joy was the best way of retaining it." Thumbing through the literature of virality, you'll find enough quotable observations to make for a fairly interesting hour at the bar: Limiting invites to a social media app makes the app seem more desirable (scarcity goes viral); products that look distinct are their own advertisements (unique goes viral); Mars bar sales perked up during the Mars Pathfinder mission (triggers go viral).

But do these insights really form a blueprint for making awesomely popular stuff, or do they simply identify stuff that turned out to be awesomely popular and pretend that such serendipity can be reverse-engineered? People tend to share videos that make them feel good, Berger points out. That's sounds right, but how do you explain the phenomena of scary chain letters, the power of negative headlines (just ask any journalist.), or Arab Spring? The most sticky content has "practical value," Berger says. But the most popular non-musical video in YouTube history is "Charlie Bit My Finger," which isn't a guide to anything except how funny British kids sound when they're crying.

The problem with most of the viral secrets isn't that they're obviously wrong. It's that they're obvious. So obvious, in fact, that they betray the very idea of a secret. Take the conclusion of the NYT most-emailed list. "Middle-aged parents with school-aged kids interested in health and education stories" is a tautology. The idea that scarce things are valuable is the foundational concept of economics; anything that explains the basic markets for oil, wheat and diamond rings isn't classified information. It's true that stories help us remember important ideas, but that revelation is as old as the Bible. (And, honestly, if you try to make the argument that the New Testament went viral, you deserve whatever biblical punishment you get.)

I'm not suggesting the Berger and Teixeira are simple-minded, just that their conclusions are simple. If the common elements of viral contents are rudimentary, then the secret to virality must be very mysterious indeed, since the vast majority of stuff doesn't get millions of hits of YouTube. 

***

There is really only one secret to virality. Hollywood knows it. Music studios know it. Publishing houses know it. BuzzFeed knows it. You probably know it, too. (In other words, it isn't really a secret, either.) It's ... the past.

A year ago, Slate's Farhad Manjoo wondered how BuzzFeed made so many sensationally popular stories. To his dismay, he learned that its writers weren't baking from scratch but rather adding icing to other people's cakes. Almost every big hit at BuzzFeed seemed to be an extension of a successful article from somewhere else on the Web (and usually Reddit). "The secret to [BuzzFeed's] viral success is to find stuff that's already a minor viral success and make it better," Manjoo wrote. "Repeat the process enough, and you're bound to get a few mega-hits.

But as I pointed out last year, that's not a shameful way to become a hits machine. Learning from the past is the only way to become a reliable hits machine. Look at Hollywood, where the top 39 movie openings in history are all sequels, reboots, and adaptations. Look at the music industry, where one study showed that today's hit pop songs are more similar in terms of chord progressions and texture than any time since the 1950s. Look at the publishing industry, where imprints bank on what books sold last month and last year (like "little books about big ideas" or one-word non-fiction books about social sciences) and try to pump out more of the same to cover their budgets. Learning from the past and trying to recreate it with a twist isn't a secret. It's just what professionals in hit-making businesses do.

Everywhere, we see that "the secret sauce" is a tweak of some popular thing that came before it. This is even the case for actual secret sauces. Forty years ago, somebody discovered a McDonalds Manager's Handbook written in 1969 and published the top-secret recipe for the pre-made sauce used on Big Macs. The instructions are now all over the Web. If you're wondering: It's basically a dressed-up thousand island dressing.

Nobody discovered the secret of sauce, after all. A couple chefs had simply picked a perfectly good sauce that already existed in almost every fridge in America and added sugar and mayo. Now these were people who understood the elements of virality. Too bad they didn't made a video.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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