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)
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a primetime interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how it shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his true gender identity.
The show went to impressive lengths to explain unfamiliar concepts of gender and sexuality to its audience, although it didn't always go smoothly. Sawyer’s questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf, mirroring a broader lack of understanding by many Americans about the difficulties that trans people face. But Sawyer’s empathy also shone when explaining concepts like gender identity and transitioning to her audience—a rare experience on primetime American television. It was a powerful signal of how much progress the LGBT movement has made over the past twenty years, even though the T in that acronym still lags behind the other three letters in both social acceptance and legal protections, and in how much progress remains to be made.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
New Zealand's largest newspaper is deeply conflicted. With the World Cup underway in Brazil, should The New Zealand Herald refer to the "global round-ball game" as "soccer" or "football"? The question has been put to readers, and the readers have spoken. It's "football"—by a wide margin.
We in the U.S., of course, would disagree. And now we have a clearer understanding of why. In May, Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at the University of Michigan, published a paper debunking the notion that "soccer" is a semantically bizarre American invention. In fact, it's a British import. And the Brits used it often—until, that is, it became too much of an Americanism for British English to bear.
The story begins, like many good stories do, in a pub. As early as the Middle Ages, Szymanski explains, the rough outlines of soccer—a game, a ball, feet—appear to have been present in England. But it wasn't until the sport became popular among aristocratic boys at schools like Eton and Rugby in the nineteenth century that these young men tried to standardize play. On a Monday evening in October 1863, the leaders of a dozen clubs met at the Freemasons' Tavern in London to establish "a definite code of rules for the regulation of the game.” They did just that, forming the Football Association. The most divisive issue was whether to permit "hacking," or kicking an opponent in the leg (the answer, ultimately, was 'no').
The editors of Smithsonian magazine have announced the winners of their 12th annual photo contest, selected from more than 26,500 entries. The winning photographs from from the competition's six categories are published below: The Natural World, Travel, People, Americana, Altered Images and Mobile. Also, a few finalists have been included as well. Captions were written by the photographers. Be sure to visit the contest page at Smithsonian.com to see all the winners and finalists.
Leon Trotsky is not often invoked as a management guru, but a line frequently attributed to him would surely resonate with many business leaders today. “You may not be interested in war,” the Bolshevik revolutionary is said to have warned, “but war is interested in you.” War, or at least geopolitics, is figuring more and more prominently in the thinking and fortunes of large businesses.
Of course, multinational companies such as Shell and GE have long cultivated an expertise in geopolitics. But the intensity of concern over global instability is much higher now than in any recent period. In 2013, the private-equity colossus KKR named the retired general and CIA director David Petraeus as the chairman of its global institute, which informs the firm’s investment decisions. Earlier this year, Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, Britain’s CIA, became the chairman of Macro Advisory Partners, a firm that advises businesses and governments on geopolitics. Both appointments are high-profile examples of a much wider trend: an increasing number of corporations are hiring political scientists, starting their board meetings with geopolitical briefings, and seeking the advice of former diplomats, spymasters, and military leaders.“The last three years have definitely been a wake-up call for business on geopolitics,” Dominic Barton, the managing director of McKinsey, told me. “I’ve not seen anything like it. Since the Second World War, I don’t think you’ve seen such volatility.” Most businesses haven’t pulled back meaningfully from globalized operation, Barton said. “But they are thinking, Gosh, what’s next?”
Today was the latest installment of the never-ending Clinton scandal saga, but it won’t be the last. Yet in some ways, the specifics are a distraction. The sale of access was designed into the post-2001 Clinton family finances from the start. Probably nobody will ever prove that this quid led to that quo … but there’s about a quarter-billion-dollar of quid heaped in plain sight and an equally impressive pile of quo, and it’s all been visible for years to anyone who cared to notice. As Jonathan Chait, who is no right-wing noise-machine operator, complained: “The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.”
“All of this amounts to diddly-squat,” pronounced long-time Clinton associate James Carville when news broke that Hillary Clinton had erased huge numbers of emails. That may not be true: If any of the conduct in question proves illegal, destroying relevant records may also have run afoul of the law.
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.
Mary Hamm was in pain, though it was hard to tell. She bustled around the Starbucks, pouring drinks, restocking pastries, and greeting customers with an unshakable gaze perfected during 25 years of working in hospitality. Her smile said, How can I help you? Her eyes said, I know you’re going to order a caramel Frappuccino, so let’s do this.
Occupying prime space in a Fredericksburg, Virginia, strip mall, beside a Dixie Bones BBQ Post, this Starbucks pulls in about $40,000 a week. Hamm, 49, had been managing Starbucks stores for 12 years. The problem was her feet. After two decades in the food-service business, they had started to wear out. She had two metal plates in the right one, installed over the course of five surgeries. Now her left foot needed surgery too. She doesn’t like to complain, but when I asked her how often she was in pain, she smiled and said quietly, “All the time.”
This month, many of the nation's best and brightest high school seniors will receive thick envelopes in the mail announcing their admission to the college of their dreams. According to a 2011 survey, about 60 percent of them will go to their first-choice schools. For many of them, going away to college will be like crossing the Rubicon. They will leave their families -- their homes -- and probably not return for many years, if at all.
That was journalist Rod Dreher's path. Dreher grew up in the small southern community of Starhill, Louisiana, 35 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. His family goes back five generations there. His father was a part-time farmer and sanitarian; his mother drove a school bus. His younger sister Ruthie loved hunting and fishing, even as a little girl.