Why do some stories go viral?

Advertisers, journalists and content creators alike have spent hours locked in meetings trying to work out how to make something ‘go viral’. Now, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have found that there’s specific brain activity that occurs as we decide to read and share content, which could hold the secret.

Researchers monitored people’s brain activity as they flipped through New York Times health articles to see what happens as we decide whether to share something or not. They found that the brain goes through a number of processes as we read something – working out whether its interested to ourselves, to others and if sharing it could improve our standing or relationships.

“People are interested in reading or sharing content that connects to their own experiences, or to their sense of who they are or who they want to be,” senior author Emily Falk said. “They share things that might improve their relationships, make them look smart or empathic or cast them in a positive light.”

Through monitoring readers’ brain activity, they found that they could predict which stories actually went viral.

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“It’s cool that the brain has developed this kind of specialised ability,” Falk told Ars Technica. “Our data suggests that two of the really important inputs to ‘the value signal’ are these potentially holistic assessments of how self relevant and socially relevant information is.”

And the inputs and calculations seem to be generic. “There’s enough commonality across people that we can take brain activity and say something pretty meaningful about what’s going to happen around the whole world… and the whole New York Times readership,” she added.

Read more: How start-ups can use storytelling to boost their business

One of the lead authors on the report, Eliza Baek, said: “When you’re thinking about what to read yourself and about what t share, both are inherently social, and when you’re thinking socially, you’re often thinking about yourself and your relationships to others. You self-concept and understanding of the world are intertwined.”

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But what does this mean for the storytellers, the people creating content hoping that it will go viral?

Christin Scholz, the other lead author, says that being able to predict which articles would go viral based on the brain activity of a few people means that similar things are happening in everyone’s brains. “The fact that the articles strike the same chord in different brains suggests that similar motivations and similar norms may be driving these behaviours. Similar things have value in our society.”

In terms of advice for someone creating content, she says: “In practice, if you craft a message in a way that makes the reader understand how it’s going to make them look positive, or how it could enhance a relationship, then we predict it would increase the likelihood of sharing that message.”

BuzzFeed’s editorial director, Jack Shepherd, shared some tips with the Guardian on how to make content go viral. He says: “People are more likely to share something if they have a strong, positive emotional response to it. A 2010 study of the New York Times ‘most emailed’ list found the articles that made the list tended to fall into one of four categories: awe-inspiring, emotional, positive or surprising. And the lesson from this isn't so much that people like to feel feelings when they engage with a piece of content, it is that when it works – when the thing actually makes them cry or exclaim or feel inspired or shocked or happy – they want to share that experience with others.”

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