The Science Behind Why Content Gets Shared

Why do memes become memes? Because humans are bored and emotional. (Okay, yes, it’s more complicated than that.)

The Science Behind Why Content Gets Shared

“People don’t share commercials,” author Scott Stratten once wrote for us, “they share emotions.”


That’s a line from his piece last year that debunked the idea of making a
hard-sell saturated video “go viral.” If you want your brand to reach people–like P&G’s amazing Olympics ad from last summer did–you need their interest in mind. But while emotional intelligence is a part of “going viral,” the mechanics of the share remains a mystery, as Quartz the appropriately named writer Christopher Mims explains.

In a post heavy with thoughts and humor, Mims explains that when we’re talking about how content moves on the web we’re talking about memes. And not simply the stuff of the Reddit frontpage, but a “meme” as it came into existence: Richard Dawkins, the rabble-rousing evolutionary biologist, coined it in 1976 as a way to describe how ideas are like genes–reproducing by moving from one mind to another, mutating while they’re there, and spreading, spreading, spreading into society.

The Internet, of course, makes it happen way faster.

Mims mentions a confounding study by Michele Coscia, a Harvard researcher who tracked 178,801 variants of 499 memes (via Quickmeme!). About 35% of them were successful–with an interesting pattern, as Mims describes:

“Those that hit an above-average peak of popularity at some point in their life were less likely, overall, to ultimately break the “success” threshold. Memes that were shared more consistently over time, rather than a great deal all at once, were more likely to ultimately rack up enough points.”

In other words, the most successful memes (and we can responsibly generalize that to content as a whole) have a certain evergreen quality to them. This has also been confirmed by Bitly data scientist Hilary Mason, whose link-fueled data set acts an index of the Internet’s attention: the most enduringly shared articles have a more timeless than timely quality to them, she once told me in an interview, which presents an interesting dilemma to companies in the business of news.

Yet at the same time, the meme is also intensely ephemeral

Using a term that media manipulator Ryan Holiday is fond of, the internet’s economy is one of attention: meaning that there’s a finite pool of attention to go around, so if one meme (be it LOLcat or thinkpiece) gains in popularity, others will fall.


This underscores the social part of social networks, social news, or social whatever. When we say social, we really mean people. And while people are great, they (for better or worse) hate to feel bored. Publishers know this, as revealed by the way Jonah Peretti built BuzzFeed to be the place you’ll default to when you’re bored at work.

So humans are emotional and easily bored. And as Sims notes, we’re also mightily predictable.

Past research about memes shows two things that should surprise no one, but are worth emphasizing: If you can figure out what someone is interested in, you can predict how likely she is to share a piece of content. And the more similar a piece of content is to what she has shared before, the more likely she is to share it.”

Hat tip: Quartz

[Image: Flickr user Andrew Fysh]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.