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)
About 10 years ago, after I’d graduated college but when I was still waitressing full-time, I attended an empowerment seminar. It was the kind of nebulous weekend-long event sold as helping people discover their dreams and unburden themselves from past trauma through honesty exercises and the encouragement to “be present.” But there was one moment I’ve never forgotten. The group leader, a man in his 40s, asked anyone in the room of 200 or so people who’d been sexually or physically abused to raise their hands. Six or seven hands tentatively went up. The leader instructed us to close our eyes, and asked the question again. Then he told us to open our eyes. Almost every hand in the room was raised.
And there could be far-reaching consequences for the national economy too.
Four floors above a dull cinder-block lobby in a nondescript building at the Ohio State University, the doors of a slow-moving elevator open on an unexpectedly futuristic 10,000-square-foot laboratory bristling with technology. It’s a reveal reminiscent of a James Bond movie. In fact, the researchers who run this year-old, $750,000 lab at OSU’s Spine Research Institute resort often to Hollywood comparisons.
Thin beams of blue light shoot from 36 of the same kind of infrared motion cameras used to create lifelike characters for films like Avatar. In this case, the researchers are studying the movements of a volunteer fitted with sensors that track his skeleton and muscles as he bends and lifts. Among other things, they say, their work could lead to the kind of robotic exoskeletons imagined in the movie Aliens.
Four decades ago Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the 39th president of the U.S., the original Star Wars movie was released in theaters, and much more.
Four decades ago Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the 39th president of the United States, the original Star Wars movie was released in theaters, the Trans-Alaska pipeline pumped its first barrels of oil, New York City suffered a massive blackout, Radio Shack introduced its new TRS-80 Micro Computer, Grace Jones was a disco queen, the Brazilian soccer star Pele played his “sayonara” game in Japan, and much more. Take a step into a visual time capsule now, for a brief look at the year 1977.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.
Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.
Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
How a seemingly innocuous phrase became a metonym for the skewed sexual politics of show business
The chorus of condemnation against Harvey Weinstein, as dozens of women have come forward to accuse the producer of serial sexual assault and harassment, has often turned on a quaint-sounding show-business cliché: the “casting couch.” Glenn Close, for instance, expressed her anger that “the ‘casting couch’ phenomenon, so to speak, is still a reality in our business and in the world.”
The casting couch—where, as the story goes, aspiring actresses had to trade sexual favors in order to win roles—has been a familiar image in Hollywood since the advent of the studio system in the 1920s and ’30s. Over time, the phrase has become emblematic of the way that sexual aggression has been normalized in an industry dominated by powerful men.
For the first time, astronomers have detected visible light and gravitational waves from the same source, ushering in a new era in our attempt to understand the cosmos.
In September of 2015, astronomers detected, for the first time, gravitational waves, cosmic ripples that distort the very fabric of space and time. They came from a violent merger of two black holes somewhere in the universe, more than a billion light-years away from Earth. Astronomers observed the phenomenon again in December, and then again in November 2016, and then again in August of this year. The discoveries confirmed a century-old prediction by Albert Einstein, earned a Nobel prize, and ushered in a new field of astronomy.
But while astronomers could observe the effects of the waves in the sensitive instruments built to detect them, they couldn’t see the source. Black holes, as their name suggests, don’t emit any light. To directly observe the origin of gravitational waves, astronomers needed a different kind of collision to send the ripples Earth’s way. This summer, they finally got it.
A driver, a transportation official, and a transit advocate explain why Seattle recently saw one of the biggest citywide increases in passenger numbers.
Almost every major U.S. city has seen years of decline in bus ridership, but Seattle has been the exception in recent years. Between 2010 and 2014, Seattle experienced the biggest jump of any major U.S. city. At its peak in 2015, around 78,000 people, or about one in five Seattle workers, rode the bus to work.
That trend has cooled slightly since then, but Seattle continues to see increased overall transit ridership, bucking the national trend of decline. In 2016, Seattle saw transit ridership increase by 4.1 percent—only Houston and Milwaukee saw even half that increase in the same year.
Bus service is crucial to reducing emissions in the Seattle region. According to King County Metro, which serves the region, nearly half of all greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state come from transportation and its operation displaces roughly four times as many emissions as it generates, by taking cars off the road and reducing traffic congestion. The public transit authority has been recognized for its commitment to sustainability and its bus fleet is projected to be 100 percent hybrid or electric by 2018.
The president managed to cause a brief firestorm by falsely accusing predecessors of neglecting slain soldiers, but real answers about why four men were killed are still elusive.
On October 4, four American Special Forces soldiers were killed during an operation in Niger. Since then, the White House has been notably tight-lipped about the incident. During a press conference Monday afternoon, 12 days after the deaths, President Trump finally made his first public comments, but the remarks—in which he admitted he had not yet spoken with the families and briefly attacked Barack Obama—did little to clarify what happened or why the soldiers were in Niger.
Trump spoke at the White House after a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and was asked why he hadn’t spoken about deaths of Sergeant La David Johnson and Staff Sergeants Bryan Black, Dustin Wright, and Jeremiah Johnson.