What Makes Something Go Viral? It's All About The Feels, According To Science

For everyone who has found themselves three hours into a series of increasingly obscure "damn, Daniel"-inspired Vines, briefly surfaced for air, and marveled at the elusive, weird formula behind what makes something go viral, I bear glad tidings. According to the Science of Us, researchers at the Italian research institute Fondazione Bruno Kessler and the Sorbonne have collaborated to identify what it is, exactly, that makes something explode in popularity online. And hey, guess what? Its all about the feels.

More specifically, the study focused on whether the emotions a news story elicits affects its chances of going viral. Emotions can be tough to quantify, especially on a large scale, but researchers found a way around that particular problem: They identified two popular publications, Rappler and the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, that allow readers to express emotional reactions to articles (much like the "react" buttons on Facebook), and analyzed 1.5 million such reactions to more than 65,000 articles.

Hypothesizing that emotions would affect a story's popularity in different ways, researchers looked for a relationship between types of "affective feedback" — happy, inspired, annoyed, afraid, or sad — and the amount of online engagement each article received. First, however, the articles were analyzed on a scale measuring as valence, arousal, and dominance (VAD). As the Science of Us explains, "'High valence' is psychospeak for 'happy feels'; 'high arousal' means excited or angry; and high dominance denotes empowerment."


Here's the cool part: According to the study, the stories people shared the most in either language were the highest in dominance — in other words, they were inspiring, such as the genius motivational Shia LeBouf video that made the rounds last fall. (Or, you know, more traditionally inspiring posts like Caine's Arcade, but LeBouf's contribution will forever hold a special place in my heart.) However, the stories that received the most comments were high in arousal; basically, these articles evoked feelings of anger or outrage. As the Harvard Business Review points out, many of the New York Times' articles that received the most comments in 2015 were also the most controversial, touching on topics like the Benghazi hearing, civilian or police shootings, and Kentucky clerk Kim Davis.

Interestingly, the nature of the emotions didn't matter all that much. Researchers found that stories evoking both negative and positive emotions could go viral, although negative emotions tended to contribute to a story's popularity.


This study may be one of the largest of its kind, but it's hardly the only research conducted on the nature of virality. Several other studies have focused on the subject in the past, and they all seem to arrive at the same conclusion: The stories that go viral tend to evoke strong emotions. Whether they're positive or negative doesn't appear to matter — the important part is that they make you feel something.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily explain memes, which are incomprehensible by nature, but I suppose some things are best left a mystery.


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