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Why It’s a Lot Harder to ‘Go Viral’ on the Internet Than You Think

5 minute read

It’s fashionable to talk about ideas as if they were diseases. Some pop songs are infectious, and some products are contagious. To that end, advertisers and producers have developed a theory of “viral” marketing, which assumes that a great idea is self-distributing, and word of mouth can take a little thing and turn it into a phenomenon.

In epidemiology, “viral” has a specific meaning. It refers to a disease that infects more than one person before it dies, or the host does. But do ideas and products ever go viral in that way?

For a long time, nobody could be sure. It’s hard to precisely track word-of-mouth buzz or the spread of a fashion (like skinny jeans) or an idea (like universal suffrage) from person to person. So, by degrees, “That thing went viral” has became a fancy way of saying, “That thing got big really quickly, and I’m not really sure how.”

But we do know how. Information on the Internet leaves a trail. When I post an article on Twitter, it is shared and re-shared, and each step of this cascade is traceable. In the digital world, scientists can finally answer the question: Do ideas really go viral?

Not really. A few years ago, several researchers from Yahoo studied the spread of millions of messages on Twitter. More than 90 percent of the messages didn’t diffuse at all. A tiny percentage, about 1 percent, was shared more than seven times. But nothing really went fully viral—not even the most popular shared messages. The vast majority of the news that people see on Twitter—around 95 percent—comes directly from its original source or from one degree of separation.

In other words, popularity on the Internet is mostly driven, not by a million one-to-one shares, but rather by a handful of one-to-one-million blasts, like a Kardashian Instagram post or top billing on the Drudge Report. These are what I call “dark broadcasters”: critical, but often obscured, blasts inside the information cascade which are responsible for broadcasting a piece of content to many people at once, a fraction of whom might pass it on.

Consider the journey of typical “viral” video. On April 24, 2012, World Malaria Day, Tracy Zamot, a media-relations executive for a music label, published a tweet with an embedded video about the disease. The malaria video exploded online, tallying up more than fifteen thousand total retweets. But Tracy Zamot’s original message was shared exactly once. So, how did the video become a phenomenon?

Getting the full story requires a bit of Internet spelunking. Let’s start on YouTube. Of the 96 comments under the video, more than half make reference to how users found it: 41 thank or mention the pop star Justin Bieber, 13 reference the country singer Greyson Chance, and five mention the actor Ashton Kutcher. In fact, all three celebrities tweeted the video to more than a million followers. “Thumbs up if Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber, Greyson Chance or any1 else sent you here!! lol” posted the user Riham RT.

Microsoft Research, who studied the video, concluded that its popularity did not bloom like a virus, at all. It didn’t spread far and wide across many generations of one-to-one or one-to-two shares, as a viral disease might. Instead, the information cascade looked more like a bomb fuse—a quiet string of solitary shares followed by several explosions, in the form of celebrity tweets, which were responsible for the vast majority of its reach. It became a hit because of three celebrities with the power to share the video with a million people at once.

This is how most information spreads online, and it has little to do with any reasonable definition of the word “viral.” Popularity is still driven by broadcasts — by publishers, celebrities, and other broadcasters who can reach thousands or even millions of people at once.

So what has changed, exactly? In the 20th century, broadcast power was scarce. Just a handful of radio stations, TV channels, and newspapers had the power to reach millions of people. But in the 21st century, broadcasts with the power to reach millions of people are so abundant that it is impossible for any individual to keep track of all of them. No matter who you are, there are news and entertainment websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, YouTube channels, podcasts, news letters, and more, which reach staggering groups of people even though you have never heard of them. When a piece of information from these dark broadcasters reaches our network, it might seem to come out of nowhere.

Seeing beyond the viral myth isn’t just an academic exercise. It has important implications for media literacy at a time when people are concerned about fake news. As confidence in traditional news outlets has declined, readers have moved their trust to peers and social networks. The most-popular list is the new homepage. But readers must be careful not to mistake ubiquity with veracity — “I saw it all over the place, so it’s probably true.” That which would seem to go viral by virtue of its inherent truth or interestingness is typically pushed by broadcasters with hidden motives. Indeed, much of the “fake news” that clogged Facebook toward the end of the presidential election was subtly broadcast by propaganda networks, some with Russian ties.

The viral myth is sticky, because it seems 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 at a moment’s notice if they make something good enough. But in the end, virality is a David myth obscuring the fact that the Internet is still run by Goliaths.

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