The Science of Internet Virality: Awe and Joy All the Way Down

Cats and babies and corgis? Or something more.

Eeeeeee. Photo: Wenliang Chen

The science of the Internet’s virality—the psychological and neurological understanding of which stories people share and why they share them (and why BuzzFeed exists)—has come up with the three key components of a well-traveled story: cats, cats and babies. Actually, it’s a little more complex than that, writes John Tierney in The New York Times. But stories that are shared widely online do have a few things in common.

For one, the most shared stories evoke strong emotions, with positive feelings of awe and joy trumping feelings of disgust or outrage. People tend “to share articles that were exciting or funny, or that inspired negative emotions like anger or anxiety, but not articles that left them merely sad. They needed to be aroused one way or the other, and they preferred good news to bad. The more positive an article, the more likely it was to be shared.”

What else do widely shared stories share? They remind us of other people. Let’s say your friend really loves dolphins. Well, you’ll probably want to send them that super emotional story you just saw about dolphins. The key is not necessarily that you care about the story so much as that you think the person you’re sending it to will care about the story.

But, says Tierney, people are still super self-centered. People get really excited when they “are sharing information about their favorite subject of all: themselves.”

“In fact, the study showed, it’s so pleasurable that people will pass up monetary rewards for the chance to talk about themselves.”

The internet, says Tierney, runs counter to the “if it bleeds it leads” mantra of the traditional press. Though wars and plagues and trauma are important, they’re also heavy emotional burdens that people may not want to put on their friends. Instead, it’s funny pictures of corgis all the way down. (Look at their little legs!)

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