We all like to think of ourselves as trendsetters.
We practice a healthy dose of skepticism whenever we encounter something new. The reality, however, is we're more easily influenced than we would care to admit, to the point where we have to ask whether something is popular because it's good or just because it's popular.
That question has been highlighted by research recently published in the journal Science
, which looks at the behavior of people reading online comments. Reported by The New York Times
, it confirmed the obvious fact that if you approve an article, either by “liking” it or sharing it, someone who reads it is more likely to do the same, regardless of its quality.
So far, so predictable, but a surprising finding relating to negative responses emerged. A negative reaction to an article won't cause people to dislike it. Instead, it will result in others’ giving it a positive review instead.
If the findings show anything, it's just how easy we're swayed by “popular” opinion. This is problematic when you consider how something goes viral in the first place.
It’s one thing to get a post or video to cross a certain threshold so that it gets a life of its own, but reaching that threshold requires a significant push from third parties.
Consider how certain videos go viral. Most don’t happen by chance; instead it comes down to corporations or influential groups and individuals pushing it out and making it popular.
If you can cast your mind back to early 2013, you will most certainly remember the “Harlem Shake” and how you couldn't even visit a page without watching a video relating to it. Everyone had their own version on YouTube, unaware that it had gathered momentum because of a few companies, one of which was Maker Studios, an agency specializing in making popular YouTube videos and partly owned by Time Warner.
Once it made its own version of the “Harlem Shake” and shared it across numerous channels, the video’s popularity exploded as both brands and individuals jumped on the bandwagon, transforming it into the meme we know today.
Corporations made the trend reach a certain level of popularity and as a result, ordinary people made it one of the most popular memes this year. Whether or not you thought it was good at the time will vary, but ultimately individuals just followed what was popular without figuring out who or what drove the trend in the first place. The more popular something is, the more likely you're going to get involved, either by creating your own version, sharing it, or interacting with it.
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That ties in to the study I mentioned earlier, which showed that users were more likely to respond positively to an article if it had already been given a positive score. Seeing something being spread positively will in turn encourage you to do the same, and you therefore will be more inclined to share it.
There's a narcissistic element in play here as well: Who doesn't
want to be the first to share something fun or interesting? Most of the time, though, we're playing along to someone else's tune.
Of course, the hardest part about getting people to share content isn't making something good or worth sharing, it's figuring out a way to get noticed. Doing so without a major brand to push it is doable, but it’s a significant challenge.
Quinton O'Reilly is a writer of social media/tech stuff for Simply Zesty, where a version of this story first appeared.