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)
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s assertion that the National Mall was "full when the president took the Oath of Office" is demonstrably false.
On January 21, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer issued a statement criticizing journalists for their coverage of President Trump's inauguration. Some media outlets, Spicer claimed, were using photographs of the event in misleading and deceptive ways. To back this claim up, Spicer made a number of assertions that turned out to be false. He offered incorrect D.C. Metro-ridership numbers, and said that white ground coverings had never been used on the Mall during Inauguration before, when they had been employed in 2013. Two days later, during his first press conference, Spicer blamed the bad Metro numbers on an "outside agency" and stated that his claim about the "largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period," was meant to include all viewership, in person and online, rather than referring to the in-person crowd specifically.
The technology has been used to create sped-up videos that falsely depict a response to stimulus.
One of the first measures that Republicans in the 115th Congress proposed was the “Heartbeat Protection Act.” On January 11, a group led by Steve King of Iowa introduced a bill that would require doctors nationwide to “check for a fetal heartbeat” before performing an abortion, and prohibit them from completing the procedure if they found one. In December, Republicans in the Ohio state legislature put forth a similar measure. Governor John Kasich vetoed it, observing that such a law would almost certainly be struck down as unconstitutional, but approved a 20-week abortion ban.
Opponents of the heartbeat bills have pointed out that they would eliminate abortion rights almost entirely—making the procedure illegal around four weeks after fertilization, before many women realize that they are pregnant. These measures raise even more elementary questions: What is a fetal heartbeat? And why does it matter?
Overshadowed by headlines about chaos and infighting, the new administration is notching a string of early victories.
From some angles, the Trump presidency is off to a rocky start. There were the somewhat disappointing crowds at the inauguration, and then the needless lies about them, presented as “alternative facts.” There’s the controversy over Trump’s remarks to the CIA, and precisely who in the crowd cheered his visit. On Monday, the president repeated a dumb and unnecessary lie about illegal ballots having cost him the popular vote during a meeting with members of Congress. The Washington Post reports in detail on White House infighting and an attempted reboot—just four days into the administration. ABC’s The Notefrowns, “He can’t help himself, and he isn’t helping himself.”
But what if the Trump presidency is actually off to a surprisingly effective start? For months, Trump has shown a perverse ability to overshadow his own message with chaos and disorder, and the first five days of his administration fit right into that pattern.
The Trump administration seems wedded to a political strategy of lying to the public, challenging the media to adjust.
Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior counselor, called Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s first official press conference a “tour de force.” That’s not strange, because Trump advisers’ main rhetorical approach is to reflect their boss’ penchant for exaggeration. What’s strange is that much of the media seemed to agree.
Two days earlier, reporters from mainstream outlets had panned a bizarre appearance by Spicer in which, flanked by photographs of the inauguration, he loudly berated the media, saying that the press had “engaged in deliberately false reporting” for failing to note that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration––period––both in person and around the globe.” Spicer also berated a reporter for erroneously reporting that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the White House, even though the reporter had apologized on social media, an apology Spicer accepted.
The White House didn’t release the text of the executive order at first.
Updated on January 24 at 2:45 p.m.
On Tuesday afternoon, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum ordering the Secretary of the Army to expedite approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a 1,100-mile pipeline linking the North Dakota oil fields to a river terminal in Illinois. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied final approval to the project late last year, after months of protests from the local Standing Rock Sioux tribe and from Native people nationwide.
The president repeated his belief that the U.S. should have taken Iraq’s oil, ominously adding that the CIA may “have another chance.”
Every American, regardless of who they voted for in the election, should be furious with President Donald Trump for what he told the CIA during a recent meeting at its headquarters. I do not mean his digressions about the size of the crowd at his inauguration and the number of times he has appeared on the cover of Time magazine, although it does not inspire confidence to see the president waste fleeting time with national-security employees on his vanity rather than our security.
It’s his comments on Iraq that ought to make Americans apoplectic, for in the space of seconds, Trump managed to utter words that are 1) morally repugnant, 2) certain to be exploited as a recruiting tool by America’s terrorist enemies, and 3) likely to help foreign adversaries diminish America’s reputation and power. For the sake of an indisciplined, self-indulgent riff, Trump made Americans less safe.
As the party struggles to agree on a replacement, a group of GOP senators unveil a bill that would give states the option to keep it.
The vast majority of Republicans in Congress haven’t budged from their longstanding vow to completely repeal the Affordable Care Act. But as the party struggles to write a replacement, a few GOP lawmakers are declaring their support for keeping the law on the books in some form indefinitely.
A group of senators on Monday unveiled legislation that would give states the option of preserving Obamacare, securing federal support for a more conservative health-insurance system, or opting out of any assistance from Washington. Offered as a middle ground in the partisan health-care fight, the proposal breaks with years of Republican orthodoxy on the 2010 law, which party leaders have pledged to rip out “root and branch.”
A No. 1 bestseller by a respected physician argues that gluten and carbohydrates are at the root of Alzheimer's disease, anxiety, depression, and ADHD. What to make of the controversial theory?
“If you could make just three simple changes in your life to prevent, or even reverse, memory loss and other brain disorders, wouldn’t you?”
So asks Dr. David Perlmutter, in promotion of his PBS special Brain Change, coming soon to your regional affiliate. Three changes. Simple ones. Wouldn’t you?
The 90-minute special is a companion to Perlmutter’s blockbuster book on how gluten and carbs are destroying our brains. In November it became a New York Times number one bestseller. Since its September release, as Perlmutter told me, “It’s never not been on the bestseller list, frankly.”
“Is it still number one?” I asked. A pause over the phone as he checked. In modern interview style, we were both also on our computers.
Narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity—a psychologist investigates how Trump’s extraordinary personality might shape his possible presidency.
In 2006, Donald Trump made plans to purchase the Menie Estate, near Aberdeen, Scotland, aiming to convert the dunes and grassland into a luxury golf resort. He and the estate’s owner, Tom Griffin, sat down to discuss the transaction at the Cock & Bull restaurant. Griffin recalls that Trump was a hard-nosed negotiator, reluctant to give in on even the tiniest details. But, as Michael D’Antonio writes in his recent biography of Trump, Never Enough, Griffin’s most vivid recollection of the evening pertains to the theatrics. It was as if the golden-haired guest sitting across the table were an actor playing a part on the London stage.
“It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” Griffin observed. There was something unreal about it.