Part II: The Psychology of Viral Content

By Ovetta Sampson

If you know about BuzzFeed’s founder Jonah Peretti, then you know he’s obsessed with viral content. BuzzFeed, the home of cat memes and stories such as “48 Pictures that Perfectly Capture the ‘90s,” receives 14 million unique visitors per month.

The website has developed its own content analysis software in an effort to figure out why people share content. This year the company acquired Kingfish Lab, a data company that has in the past analyzed Facebook’s viral content. To understand Peretti’s world view on viral you have to meet a Harvard-educated guy from Queens.

Well, you can’t meet Stanley Milgram, he’s no longer with us, but his legacy of tracking, documenting and interpreting social interaction lives on.

When Peretti talks about “social publishing,” or Mark Zuckerberg speaks about the “social graph,” they’re really referencing Stanley Milgram. A psychology professor at Yale in the 1960s, Milgram is a legend in social psychology and mathematical circles. But you may know his work from the Kevin Bacon Game, and I call him the Social Media Mad Man.

The Psychologist behind Social Media

With $680, Milgram developed the Six Degrees of Separation Theory, which says we’re all separated by 5.5 people (six rounded up). The psychologist’s book, “The Individual In a Social World,” holds a treasure trove of analysis about how we interact with family and strangers within city and neighborhoods, in dorms and other groups.  Milgram, you see, is the invisible hand behind social network pioneers. Here’s an excerpt from the Social World:

“If influence is to be exerted by one person on another,” Milgram writes, “some message must pass from the influencing source to its target…social psychology acquires scientific potential, for what passes from one person to the next necessarily enters the public and thus measurable domain.”

Yeah, Milgram was analyzing viral content in the 1960s.

The Psychology behind Content Sharing

I loved Individual in a Social World! It’s not a typical social research read. Not a stuffy, Ivy-leaguer at all. Milgram waxes humorously about Peruvian women running away from him as he tries to take their picture or using, a “sexy joke,” to appeal to Harvard freshman in one of his experiments. The book chronicles a series of experiments Milgram conducted in the 1960s. It offers priceless, beautiful insights on how humans share content. Back then, the content was usually letters or telephone calls but the research implications resonate for content creators of today.

Here are some of Milgram’s most relevant findings:

  • We feel awfully close to strangers. Milgram’s hypothesized that we create real relationships with people we ignore. Called “familiar strangers,” these are people we regularly see on the commute to work, at the grocery story, but never speak to. Yet the farther we get from our shared environment, the closer the strangers become. So we won’t speak to the lady who we see at the bus stop every morning but will have dinner with her if we bump into her in say, Paris. I suggest this is why people say the most personal things on Twitter and Facebook or YouTube that they would NEVER say to their neighbors. Social media creates lots of “familiar strangers.” And lots of opportunities to communicate with a safe layer of anonymity.
  • Social networks are homogenous. In the Six-Degree experiment, people in Nebraska were asked to get a package to a stock broker in Boston by sending it through just one person in their network. The experiment counted how many people it would take to reach the broker. It took just 5.5 people on average. On the whole, females sent the package to females, males to males, and no one crossed economic or racial lines to share the letter. That homogeneity reigns today in social networks.  In the “Why Do People Use Facebook,” study this year, Boston researchers found FB users formed “supportive connections more easily with people who were perceived to be most similar to them.”
  • “Social vertices,” glue networks together. In the Nebraska Six Degrees experiment the letter successfully reached the Boston stock broker 62 times. But no matter where the letter began—with a widow, an engineer or a realtor—nearly 50% of the letter chains reached the stock broker through just three men. These men remind me of people you meet at a party who are friends with jocks, geeks, cowboys and the hip-hop crew. Everyone knows them. I call these people “social vertices.” They’re the folks on the plane where diverse social networks intersect. And according to some convincing research, they are the folks that make content go viral, not folks with huge followings or media personalities.
  • Positive content spreads, negative content stalls. A Milgram experiment dropped “lost letters,” around town. It found people mailed the “lost letter,” if it was addressed to a research facility or individual but didn’t if it was addressed to “The Friends of the Nazi Party,” or “The Friends of the Communist Party.” This is even though the letter contents were identical. Many people opened the Nazi letters but did not mail them. This suggests people are more comfortable being a pass-thru for content that comes from a positive group.

Using Psychology for Content Creation

So what can Milgram teach content creators?

  • People trust strangers if they’re geographically connected.  Such geographic content can build trust between you and new clients without them ever meeting you. How many of us trust a Yelp review? I’ve never met those people. Yet, strangely I seek their counsel when I need pizza.
  • The content sharing pipeline for most people is frighteningly short. Viral kings BuzzFeed and StumbleUpon analyzed the top 50 viral stories on Facebook since the mid-2007. They found that within viral content—even that with millions of Facebook shares—the median ratio of Facebook views to shares was just 9-to-1. For every Facebook share, only nine people saw the story. Study authors suggest “social media influencers,” may be overrated, but, of course, social sharing sites like um, Buzzfeed and StumbleUpon are not. 🙂
  • Content sharing is easier when you find your social vertices. Try sharing content with “socio-metric stars,” people who always seem to be in the middle of socially diverse networks.  These people have deep, not wide connections and are content conduits that people trust to channel content through.
  • Keep it upbeat or hopeful. Social media guru Josh Ochs is famous for the phrase “Keep it Light, Bright, & Polite,” incidentally the name of his book. And Milgram’s “Lost Letter,” experiment proves this. It seems positive messages travel among SNS communities faster than negative ones.

Milgram’s book is a fascinating and informative read. The chapter on Photography is like a graduate course on why video goes viral. The book doesn’t teach everything, in fact there are some who question Milgram’s methods, but what does? But I find after reading Milgram I’m definitely more focused on human nature in content creation.

Ovetta Sampson, is a freelance digital writer for Blue Soda Promo, a promotional marketing company based in the Chicago area. An avid triathlete, she’s still finds time to run her own content marketing firm and blog.

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