Viral “content” dominates the Internet. We see it whenever we log in. Articles ask us to recall favorite items from our childhood or smile at funny animals or applaud someone’s accomplishments.
And we almost always click. The top stories from Facebook — and, to a lesser extent, Twitter — confirm it.
So how do they get us to do it?
Once you click, you’ll notice that the information contained therein isn’t long. The articles are filled with pictures and pithy captions—which are almost always exclamatory. The writer wants to bring you into his piece, so, he’ll adopt the conversational tone of the internet: abbreviations, questions, hyperbolic statements.
In fact, without the pictures, these pieces wouldn’t work as well as they do. Take a look at the Tumblr “Buzzfeed Articles Without the GIFs.” It looks like the online journal of a really excited high school student.
But that’s what gets you to read. Most people who are wasting time on Facebook and on Twitter are doing exactly that—wasting time. They’re not taking a break—or slacking—from work in order to read Denis Johnson’s latest story in the New Yorker. They want to zone out for a few minutes. As Derek Thompson observes: “For lack of a better term: [These stories are] entertainment.”
So people will scroll through something like this and then get back to the daily grind.
3. Evergreen Topics
A few months ago, I was talking with a colleague about how our most successful stories on Facebook often aren’t news-pegged—that is, they’re not about recent or upcoming events. Instead, they are what journalists call “evergreen” stories—essays about diets, Millennials, and happiness, studies on coffee and decision-making, or beautiful photos. This was around the time that Upworthy—notable purveyor of sugary-sweet videos and “you won’t believe what happens next” headlines—was riding Facebook’s rocket ship, not as a “news” organization, but as a savvy scavenger and marketeer.
He’s right. Most of these stories are about nothing serious. Yes, Buzzfeed and Upworthy publish newsworthy pieces, but, as he notes, their biggest draws are cutesy, sentimental ones.
Well, as I mentioned, we’re on Facebook to waste time. We want a brief retreat from the daily minutiae, so we log in and we take quizzes or look at nice pictures or we smile at a heartwarming story. And Facebook responds to what we like to read. So that’s why our newsfeed seems dominated with such things. As Thompson notes, “You can make your News Feed a news feed if you really want to. You can hide your most frivolous friends, follow the Facebook page of every national newspaper, and share every NBC News link that comes your way. But you don’t.”
Many people aren’t going to use CNN’s latest updates on Ukraine to zone out from a horrible workday.
2. Word of Mouth
Something popular is going to spread—and quickly. That’s why we call it going ‘viral.’ Someone will share a post, and his friends will do the same. And so on. Eventually, it’ll end up all over the internet—or it’ll even make an appearance on the news.
It’s because the story appeals to a broad-range of people. Niche stories about good books are going to attract only a small group of readers. Everyone, however, likes to watch funny animal videos.
And all of this had previously existed on television. Shows like “America’s Funniest Home Videos” capitalized on it.
Facebook and other websites are just picking up on the trend.
1. List Headlines
So much of this is in the headline. If you’re browsing Facebook and you see someone has posted an article that reads “5 Ways _____ Movie is the Best One I’ve Ever Seen,” you’re going to click. Why? Well, it’s provocative. The writer wants you to either nod in agreement or angrily shout why he’s incorrect.
You wouldn’t read the piece if it were titled: “On ______.” Sure, some might. But this is new media, and the rules are different.
And that’s why you click.
Are you worried? You shouldn’t be. “Entertainment was beating up on news long before Zuckerberg was born,” Thompson rightly says. Yes, you could make the argument that the prevalence of entertainment is indicative of the West’s hedonistic slide into darkness, but I don’t think that’s the case here.
After all, if we spent all of our lives reading about terrible things, we’d go crazy.
image courtesy shutterstock / Frank L Junior