While marketers may want to boil down people's sharing behavior to one, easy equation, that's just not how the social networks function.
For many, going viral is the high point of their online life cycle. For media companies, it may soon be their primary source of subsistence.
The end of 2011 suggested as much: social media outpaced search as a top online activity last year, and Google's decision to incorporate Google+ information into search results indicates an increasing emphasis on sharing and social referrals by major Internet companies. For media outlets, this indicates an increasingly disrupted future, where websites lose their appeal as stand-alone content destinations. Felix Salmon articulates this sentiment at the Columbia Journalism Review's Audit desk "HuffPo is built on the idea that when stories are shared on Twitter or Facebook, that will drive traffic back to huffingtonpost.com, where it can then monetize that traffic by selling it to advertisers," writes Salmon. "But in future, the most viral stories are going to have a life of their own, being shared across many different platforms and being read by people who will never visit the original site on which they were published."
But not everyone has the same viral intuition that Ben Huh of I Can Haz Cheezburger or the creators of the now-famous "Old Spice Guy" ads do. So how, if at all, can mere mortals (and media companies) harness the power of virality? In reality, the key ingredient to virality isn't the number of share buttons or Twitter followers you have, but your sensitivity to culture, that body of nuances that go beyond demographic breakdowns. Each sharing ecosystem on the web has its own unique subculture, its own sets of rules of order and norms of behavior. The secret to going viral is seamlessly navigating these worlds.
Until now, media companies have looked at virality as a function of infrastructure: install every share tool imaginable on your website, publish an article and let natural Facebook activity do the rest. At TechCrunch, entrepreneur Uzi Shmilovic examined eight ways Internet giants like Facebook and Linkedin have used virality as a vehicle for success. Shmilovic emphasizes using a "Virality Coefficient" -- "how many new users on average does one user of your product 'infect'" -- to measure to virality of a piece of information. A coefficient greater than 1 indicates exponential growth, the type that describes wildly successful Internet campaigns like the Old Spice Guy:
The virality coefficient is super important, but there's one other critical number that you should pay attention to--the cycle time. The cycle time is the average time it takes from the moment that one of your users performs a viral action to the moment that a new user signs up because of this very action. It makes a huge difference if your cycle time is one day or 60 days.
David Skok of Matrix Ventures gave a presentation about that recently, and actually devised a formula to calculate the amount of users you will get after a period of time based on the Virality Coefficient (K) and the Cycle Time (ct).
Having virality expressed in this way is beneficial as it boils down virality to the optimization of two variables: maximize K and minimize ct.
The problem with Shmilovic's analysis is that it assumes virality is a structural property that can be optimized or reduced to a consistent formula. His recommendations, designed for marketers, are based on creating systems that maximize the space for sharing, differentiated with little marketing buzzwords like "communication virality" ("the product is used to communicate with other people, some of which might be potential users") or "embeddable virality" ("new people who are exposed to the content embed it on their own website, promoting it even further").
The emphasis on structural factors isn't inherently a bad thing: advancements in technology (particularly in communications) have radically transformed the speed and scope of viral products. The Economist's recentexploration of how Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences went viral across the continent through contemporary media -- namely the printing press and multiple translations into the various dialects that permeated 16th-century Europe -- is a perfect (and fascinating) example. In the social space, the prevalence and placement of tools like the Facebook "like" button can certainly be the determining factors of whether a compelling article reaches that tipping point in Shmilovic's Virality Coefficient. The Huffington Post is the ideal model here: the site amplifies its power as a clearinghouse for all things Internet-famous by deeply integrating every conceivable social network and sharing tool into its article pages. When it comes to the promulgation of ideas, infrastructure matters.
But festooning a page with strings of shiny share buttons (Digg! Mixx! Bookmerken! Dipdive!) is a wholly incomplete approach to the spread of information; it assumes that all social behavior and all social networks or online communities are essentially the same. But the human mind isn't a uniform filter, and sharing behavior differs across ubiquitous platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook. "Nobody can see what you search on Google, so popular search trends tend to reflect the more reptilian brain in people," explained Jonah Peretti, founder of viral hub Buzzfeed, in 2010. ""Celebrity gossip, sex, hair transplants ... nobody tweets about this stuff." A brief glance at the most-shared stories of 2011 on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin highlight their differences in focus.
Obviously, the culture of each online ecosystem is shaped by its particular structure, but these have more to do with the how and where of sharing; in reality, it is the why that shapes how ideas take hold. Geert Hofstede, the influential Dutch social psychologist and anthropologist and pioneer in the field of cross-cultural studies, has a succinct take on the role of technology in shaping the spread of ideas and information in his classic work Culture's Consequences. "Electronic communication does not eliminates cultural differences, just as faster and easier travel has not reduced cultural rifts," wrote Hofstede. "The software of the machines may be globalized, but the software of the minds that use the terminals is not":
Electronic communication enormously increases the amount of information accessible for its users, but it does not increase their capacity to absorb this information or change their preexisting value systems. Users have to select what information they recognize; this has always been the case, only the selection ask has become much larger. We select our information according to our values. Like our parents, we read newspapers that we expect to give our preferred points of view, and, confronted with the new bulk of electronic information, we again pick whatever reinforces our preexisting ideas. Our relatively brief experience with the Internet so far has shown that people use to do what they were doing anyway, only maybe more and faster.
People don't engage the unique structure of social networks as blank slates; they enter into each ecosystem with a particular set of values, values that shape the nature of a community and, in turn, the type of ideas and products that take hold. As Alexis Madrigal noted, different networks fill the various social niches in our lives. This is a valuable lesson not just for marketers and media companies, but any person or organization looking to spread a set of ideas or concepts across the vastness of the Web.
Erving Goffman's analogy of social life to the theater from The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life comes to mind. Goffman argued that the social actor has the ability to choose his stage and props, as well as the costume he would wear in front of a specific audience. On the Internet, we function on many different stages, with a wardrobe bursting with meticulously crafted costumes.
Above: The pattern of sound waves, photographed by scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories, 1950 (Library of Congress)
The 49ers quarterback won’t stand for the national anthem anymore.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem before games as a protest against recent high-profile incidents of police brutality and racial injustice have been met with criticism and protests, but is an important step for a league where professional athletes rarely speak out on such issues.
Kaepernick was noticed sitting down during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” in a preseason game Friday. When asked by a reporter about his actions, he said:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
What looks at first glance like an opening up of possibilities is actually an attack on the human imagination.
You might not like what I’m about to say about the multiverse. But don’t worry; you’ve already had your revenge. If there are an infinite number of parallel universes, there will be any number of terrible dictatorships, places where life has become very difficult for people who like to string words together. Somewhere out there, there’s a society in which every desperate little essay like this one comes with a tiny, unremarkable button: push it, and the author will be immediately electrocuted to death.
Maybe your hate is more visceral—you already know I’ll die some day, but you want to see it happen; you need to see me groveling. You can if you want. Fly upwards from the plane of our solar system, keep on going, through the endless huddles of galaxies, never forgetting your purpose, until space and time run out altogether. Eventually you’ll find yourself in another universe, on a damp patch of grass and broken concrete, unwatched by whatever local gang or galactic empire rules the city rising in foggy shapes beyond the marshes. There, you’ll see a creature strangely similar to yourself, beating me to death with whatever bits of scrap are lying around.
As pay TV slowly declines, cable news faces a demographic cliff. And nobody has further to fall than the merchant of right-wing outrage.
Updated at 12:05 p.m.
October 7, 2016, will be the 20th birthday of the Fox News Channel, and at the moment, the network is experiencing the soap-operatic highs and lows typical of any teenager on television. In many ways, the summer of 2016 may go down in Fox News history as the company’s nadir. Its founder and leader Roger Ailes has been dishonorably dispatched, the remaining executives are dealing with a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits, and one of its most public faces, Sean Hannity, has ignominiously remodeled himself as a gutless Trump whisperer.
And yet Fox News’ fortunes are ascendant, at least in the most quantifiable sense. The network’s annual profit in 2015 soared by about 20 percent. For the first time ever, Fox News has been the most-watched cable network among both primetime and daytime viewers for several months, with a larger audience than its nominal rivals, CNN and MSNBC, combined. Led by “The O'Reilly Factor,” Fox News doesn’t just have the best-rated news show on cable television; according to The Wrap, it has the 13 best-rated news shows on cable television.
A new anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system
Elite tennis players have an uncanny ability to clear their heads after making errors. They constantly move on and start fresh for the next point. They can’t afford to dwell on mistakes.
Peter Strick is not a professional tennis player. He’s a distinguished professor and chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute. He’s the sort of person to dwell on mistakes, however small.
“My kids would tell me, dad, you ought to take up pilates. Do some yoga,” he said. “But I’d say, as far as I’m concerned, there's no scientific evidence that this is going to help me.”
Still, the meticulous skeptic espoused more of a tennis approach to dealing with stressful situations: Just teach yourself to move on. Of course there is evidence that ties practicing yoga to good health, but not the sort that convinced Strick. Studies show correlations between the two, but he needed a physiological mechanism to explain the relationship. Vague conjecture that yoga “decreases stress” wasn’t sufficient. How? Simply by distracting the mind?
Why did the company trend a false article about Megyn Kelly?
Oh, Facebook. Just when the company seems to have avoided the responsibility of being a news organization (and all the attendant controversy), it finds itself back in the editorial muck.
Last week, Facebook made a surprise overhaul of its “Trending Stories” feature, the sidebar that highlights some of the most popular news stories on Facebook. Where the company had previously provided a short, human-written summary of the news at hand, it now only described the story in a one or two-word phrase: “#Toyko2020: Japanese Prime Minister Appears in Surprise Performance During Rio Ceremony,” became just “#Tokyo2020.”
Facebook’s decision to simplify the feature seemed like an attempt to wriggle out of editorial responsibility: What had been a messy human-led process would now become an algorithm-guided one. The company also laid off the 26 employees who had run the feature—19 curators and seven copyeditors—with little warning on Friday, according to Quartz.
Hillary Clinton has her problems, but Donald Trump is unfit for the presidency.
On one hand, there’s former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who oversaw “grossly inadequate” security at a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, the site of a deadly September 11, 2012, terrorist attack.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Economics hasn’t been able to explain irrational choices. Can neuroscience?
Humans often make bad decisions. If you like Snickers more than Milky Way, it seems obvious which candy bar you’d pick, given a choice of the two. Traditional economic models follow this logical intuition, suggesting that people assign a value to each choice—say, Snickers: 10, Milky Way: 5—and select the top scorer. But our decision-making system is subject to glitches.
In one recent experiment, Paul Glimcher, a neuroscientist at New York University, and collaborators asked people to choose among a variety of candy bars, including their favorite—say, a Snickers. If offered a Snickers, a Milky Way and an Almond Joy, participants would always choose the Snickers. But if they were offered 20 candy bars, including a Snickers, the choice became less clear. They would sometimes pick something other than the Snickers, even though it was still their favorite. When Glimcher would remove all the choices except the Snickers and the selected candy, participants would wonder why they hadn’t chosen their favorite.
What to do if you’re a Hillary fan seated next to a Trump supporter at a wedding
When America is finally great again, they’ll make the latte with soy milk like you asked.
All those political cracks, not to mention earnest proclamations, mean that for the next 10 weeks, many casual interactions run the risk of erupting into full-blown partisan warfare. It’s more of a danger for those with family members or close friends who support opposing candidates and views. But on Facebook, hot-button scuffles can break out between almost anyone. (I recently witnessed a college friend who lives in Europe arguing about gun rights with a random guy from my high school in Texas, whom I myself have spoken with only a few times in person.)
One reason Americans find the other side’s views so inflammatory is that increasingly, they view their political party as more of a tribe than a checkbox. “People start seeing themselves or their political views as the main representation of their values, and what is right and wrong,” said Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA.
In the primaries, he avoided policy debates by promising to build a wall—but the general election is forcing him into specifics.
The biggest political story of the last week has been Donald Trump’s flip-flop on deporting undocumented immigrants. This Sunday on CNN, Mike Pence filibustered his way through the subject for almost seven minutes before Jake Tapper finally declared, “You did not address the issue” and moved on. Chris Christie on ABC and Kellyanne Conway on CBS were no more coherent. The Daily Beast summed up the morning with the headline, “Immigration Flip-Flop Leaves Trump Campaign Flailing on Sunday Shows.”
But focusing on Trump’s “flip-flop” misses the point. Trump’s real problem isn’t that he’s changed his position on immigration. It’s that he’s trying to formulate one at all.
What the commentary of the last few days has generally overlooked is that while immigration was key to Trump’s success in the Republican primary, Trump never actually offered an immigration policy. To the contrary, his success rested in large measure on his ability to avoid one. Trump’s strategy on immigration, as on other key issues, was to cut through the Gordian knot of public policy with aggressive, quick fix solutions. Terrorism? Ban Muslims. ISIS? Bomb the hell out of them and take their oil. Loss of manufacturing jobs? Slap massive tariffs on companies that outsource American jobs.