The Internet is supposedly a hive of virality. When we see a Facebook post with 10,000 shares or a YouTube video with 5 million views, we assume this popularity is driven by zillions of intimate shares, like infected individuals passing along the flu.
Do popular ideas and products really go “viral“? For a long time, nobody could be sure. It was hard to precisely track word-of-mouth buzz. But online, scientists can actually follow the journey of a piece of information as it pings around the Internet.
In 2012, researchers from Yahoo studied the spread of messages on Twitter. Their conclusion: nothing really ever goes viral. More than 90% of the messages didn’t diffuse at all. The vast majority of the news that people see on Twitter — around 95% — comes directly from its original source or from one degree of separation.
Popularity on the Internet is still driven by the biggest broadcasts — not by a million 1-to-1 shares, but rather by a handful of 1-to–1 million shares. Such broadcasts used to be exclusive to legacy companies, like TV channels and FM stations. Now there are new blast points on the Internet, like a Kardashian post or a top spot on Reddit.
We want to believe the viral myth because it’s uplifting. It promises small-time writers, photographers and videographers that a moment’s inspiration can transform into sudden fame. It holds up the Internet as a perfect democracy, where anybody can become a star if they make something good enough. In the end, virality is a David myth obscuring the fact that the Internet is still run by Goliaths.
This appears in the February 20, 2017 issue of TIME.
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