Every blogger, web poster and Twitter or Facebook aficionado dreams of the day one of their posts goes viral. (We wrote of our own brief brush with viral fame back in 2010 with a post on multi-tasking that reached 2,500 hits – still trivial by internet viral-ity standards.)
But as it turns out, going viral is usually not what it appears to be. When we see a Facebook post with thousands of shares, or a YouTube video with millions of hits, we’re inclined to think that’s the result of countless ‘personal’ shares, “like infected individuals passing along the flu,” as Derek Thomson, author of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, noted in a recent article for Time.
Apparently, for a long time no one really knew whether a popular idea or product was truly viral. It was hard to track precise word-of-mouth buzz. But online, scientists have been busily studying information as it pings around the Internet, and in 2012 researchers at Yahoo studied the spread of messages on Twitter.
Their conclusion: nothing really ever goes viral.
Thompson notes that more than 90% of messages did not ‘diffuse’ at all. About 95% of what we see on Twitter comes directly from its source, or from one degree of separation.
Thompson writes: “Popularity on the Internet is still driven by the biggest broadcasters – not by a million 1-to-1 shares, but rather by a handful of 1-to-1 million shares.” They come from a wide range of blast points –not just the legacy TV companies like NBC, CBS or Fox, but from places like Reddit or, yes, the Kardashians.
While the viral myth is enchanting to writers because it feels so uplifting, promising small-time writers, photographers, artists and videographers a shot at widespread artistic fame, alas, it rings mostly false. While it might feel good to think of the Internet as a bastion of democracy where anybody can become a star by making something interesting or good enough, it’s not really the case.
In the end, as Derek Thompson says, “virality is a David myth obscuring the fact that the Internet is still run by Goliaths.”