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That thing called virality

It’s strange. No one wants to catch a virus, but everyone’s after virality. What is it?

How Viruses Are Spread

A virus spreads from person to person within a group, then group to group within a community, then from community to community. And so on and so forth. The same thing happens with content, ideas and materials.

The rise of the network society has created the perfect environment for this phenomenon. Many of us live, work and interact as part of networks, so unless you’re totally off the grid, you’ve probably been infected one way or the other, and more importantly, helped share the infection.

What Stories Are Shared, And Why

Still, most people will tell you that setting out to go viral is much like winning the lotto. Predicting what content will go viral is tough to achieve – there are many pieces of great content that have gone viral and plenty that have gone nowhere, so what are the differences?

Media experts, including BuzzSumo and the New York Times have analyzed millions of shared articles to find out the psychology behind social sharing. Here’s what they have found.

1.  Shock, awe, laughter and amusement can lead to virality. (Things that make us go “awwww” are particularly shareable.)

The biggest reason a piece of content gets shared is because it connects with people emotionally. We share things that make us cry, laugh, think and feel.

2. People say they share because they want to be helpful. In the New York Times’ stuffy “The Psychology of Sharing”, people mentioned the reasons they share.

These include:

* To bring valuable and entertaining content to one another

* To define themselves to others (give people a better sense of who they are)

* To grow and nourish relationships (stay connected with others)

* For self-fulfillment (to feel more involved in the world)

* To get the word out on causes they care about.

Noah Kagan of AppSumo and OKDork says “Awe-inspiring and funny content definitely fulfill the first three reasons. Sharing entertaining content brings value to our friends, shows others we have great taste, and spurs conversation and reactions.”

But there’s a bigger reason:

3. Narcissism. In fact, the BuzzSumo study shows eight of the top 10 most shared articles in the past eight months were quizzes (seven from BuzzFeed, one from the NY Times). Why quizzes? Because when we share our quiz results, it fuels our identity and ego. Others will learn more about who we are, what we value, and our tastes. Think about the last time you shared a quiz. Do you really think 90% of your Facebook friends actually care? No, but the few that do will know what a cool person you are. Similarly, sharing an opinionated piece about a hot issue, such as gay marriage lets others know where we stand on the issue.

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