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  • Maya Malekian

Spreads Like Wildfire: Why Things Go Viral?

The term “viral” has not always been associated with the idea of widespread content on social networks sites via word-of-mouth and content sharing. Its original definition served as an adjective to describe something caused by or related to a virus, more specifically used as a medical term. Then with the dawn of the Internet, it expanded its usage to define a “bug” in computer systems that would cause malfunctions. Furthermore, as computers became a commodity in everyday life, the term began to also describe the spontaneous rise in popularity of specific content, which would reach users across the Internet. Today, the viral content has shown to have an unprecedented impact on popular culture and even society with arguments on both sides of its beneficial and harmful effects. Before determining its efficiency and power for social change, it is important to examine why certain content goes viral and its process.


Pinpointing the exact reasons for why certain messages, figures, or products go viral is not necessarily similar to finding a cure to a virus. There isn’t an exact science to it since its decision makers aren’t algorithms or data driven but rather based on human perception, beliefs and values within a changing society. However, when tracking recent trends that have sent shockwaves through the Internet, it can be inferred that certain shared characteristics amongst past viral content are attractive to the audience. A driving force for viral content is its social value and relevance because it promotes the previously mentioned idea of social integration and community building. For example, memes have had the upper hand in this category as a humorous forum to share opinions, news and information. Another example is sharing new trending restaurants or places to visit to friends via social media. Sharing this new and usually surprising content not only tells the receiver that the sender is “in the loop” with what is trending, it also opens the opportunity to connect and share common experiences, such as commenting on a shared post: “this is so us” or “relatable”. The audience wants to feel like they are a part of larger community of “in-the-know” people who can relate with them.


Another important aspect of content that goes viral also emphasizes the humanness of them: compelling stories that bring out an emotion from the audience. Whether the audience is surprised, angered, happy, or optimistic, the emotional response prompts the viewer to share the content to, once again, create a shared experience within a community. For example, video of dogs and babies top the list of viral videos because of the positive emotions they evoke amongst viewers. On the other hand, content which evokes a more dramatic emotion of anger or sadness can provide the audience to share something about themselves, their values and what they care about. The emotions can sometimes even inspire a call for action and now provides a platform to share personal stories or impressions on the topic. Similar to trending viral content, these compelling stories make the audience feel relevant because of the responsibility now in their hands to take action.


Viral content has impacted the role of the audience and allowed them to inherit the power to determine the value of messages and its dissemination across media. Analyzing how certain things go viral reveals common threads amongst trends, which give a better insight to how the odds can be in favor of certain messages to catch on to the public. This is a useful tool to know especially when sharing content that can have a larger impact on the overall good of society. However, it is important to recognize that these qualitative findings transform as humans and events shape society. Moreover, sometimes certain messages just get picked up by the audience and go viral at random without a sure understanding of its appeal. If there was a model or playbook on how to go viral, then everybody would go “viral” and messages would get lost in an already infinite web of information. Through inquisitive research, tactics and strategies can be developed and target audiences and goals can be narrowed down to increase chances to go viral, but in the end sometimes all it takes is the right post and the right time and place—or more simply put: pure luck.

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