It is perhaps one of the most unique characteristics of the internet that the things which separate us can have the effect of bringing us closer on a much larger scale. The latest example of this phenomenon is that single word, monotonously making its way into eardrums across the world: Yanny. Or Laurel, if you’re one of those people.
The question of what makes something go viral in the sense things do online hasn’t been open to examination for all that long, at least not in comparison to some of the topics driving research today. But it’s a question that has burst onto the scene, enthralling academics, journalists, their editors, bloggers and almost anyone who has ever been on Reddit.
Here at 4media, we concern ourselves with these questions, because they impact our work enormously. What is the pinnacle of extraordinary digital PR if not the creation of a campaignthat finds viral status? And beyond that, ought not anyone in media be concerned with the creation of content that finds people wanting to hit the “share” button?
We certainly think so, and that’s a part of the reason our staff is comprised of experts in social media and online culture. I sat down with 4media group’s SVP of digital marketing and media, Alex Hinojosa, to put a dent in the question at hand: What makes some content go viral?
“What’s in it for me?” Hinojosa asked from across the room, seated like a sensei on his yoga mat. “Everyone has the ability to participate in something viral—it’s like the umbrella we can all stand under.”
And he’s right, almost unquestionably, because he’s not making a value judgment. This isn’t a commentary on the quality of the content, it’s commentary on the very thing that makes us all such social animals.
Whether it was questioning the color of a certain dress, which was blue, by the way, or attempting to understand how any young woman’s mother could possibly allow her to challenge the entire audience of Dr. Phil ousside howbout dat, viral content opens innumerable pathways for discussion–and most of us like to talk.
“Viral content also pulls on emotion, because although it can bring us all together, it also creates the instant spark of debate—‘you’re wrong, I’m right, that’s how it is,’” Hinojosa said, smiling at what I can only imagine are fond memories of past online debates.
Again, this factor makes viral content extraordinarily unique. It coalesces us, quite ironically, by tugging at our heart strings and then in some instances, giving us something to argue about. Of course, not all viral content is worthy of argument. Two summers ago, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral, and raised over $115 million in support of people living with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, according to Market Watch. It drew us together, it made us laugh and cry, and it was for a noble cause, too.
But here’s another facet of internet culture that makes Hinojosa’s inclusion of debate a particularly interesting principle in viral content: If circulated widely enough online, absolutely anything will eventually be called into question under the idea that someone is right, and someone else is wrong.
In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, some publications called it “stunt philanthropy,” and people online pointed out the relative rarity of ALS when compared to other debilitating diseases, arguing the association couldn’t be trusted to allocate its enormous and newfound donations, while researchers coined “funding cannibalism.” And though opinions abound, they prove perfectly the problem in recognition of anything on a global scale. Someone will disagree, and their claims are likely to find support somewhere out there.
“Also, this content is short!” Hinojosa said. “The amount of time you have to invest to have an opinion is around two seconds—and that’s what makes it so shareable—you want to find other people with your opinion, and so in some sense that makes viral videos the bonding center of the internet.”
That point can’t be overstated. It’s sort of the engine driving internet culture at large, especially as it relates to social media. Attention spans are short, some opinions are developed without an appropriate investment of time, and yet our human nature drives us to find like minded people, whether we’re excitedly discussing Yanny and Laurel, or the growing acceptance of the singular “they” in modern grammar. The internet has provided a venue for us all, and the things that get top billing are sure to bond us, somehow or another.
There’s insight in here, specifically for people in digital PR, marketing and media.
“Whether you’re conducting a media tour, market research, a video shoot, whatever it may be; if you check off these tried and true boxes, you can find that trying to create viral content is the standard we should all aim for to break through the clutter,” Hinojosa said.
With that, I turned my attention to the computer screen, and proceeded to check two out of three boxes I had just been provided with. I still struggle keeping things short.