Why we share and what can go viral

What makes some quality pieces of writing more shareable than others? What makes some writing go viral while others stay quietly dormant where they started?

Good content is a must for a strong chance at being shared (I can see some rolling their eyes here and I agree. “Good” is a term subject to interpretation. Good here would be a measure of how far the writing has met its own goals which might not not necessarily be aligned with a universal standard of wholesome writing.)

There are too many “how to write viral content” articles out there for me to rehash here again. What intrigues me today is not so much the writing itself but the people involved with the writing in some form or the other–the readers who read, discuss and share–with or without having read the article. 

The desire to share

Jadavpur university bookstore
Jadavpur university bookstore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Where does this desire to share come from? Do we gain anything from sharing an article written by somebody else, most often a total stranger? Could we understand the shareability factor of writing by not just looking at the writing itself but at the people who share? Is this new phenomenon really as new as it sounds?

For a long time, people were proud of their books and not always because of the knowledge they contained. Expensive, leather-covered books with gold lettering were a sign of class and erudition displayed in a tastefully decorated library on burnished shelves if you were rich enough to have one.

If you were less monetarily gifted, hard-covered books would adorn your living room shelves. It was a part of the identity of people who read. Books, sometimes, served as material evidence of a kind of non-material capital, a way to underscore the superiority of those with knowledge (over its imagined binary opposite–those with money but presumably little knowledge). It  was a good way to build a legacy to bequeath to your children or grandchildren, just like money or property. Or perhaps to share and circulate.

[A somewhat unrelated aside here: I remember Geoffrey Chaucer’s dig at the clerk who carried a lot of books in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and the juxtaposition of the portrait with wealth:

A CLERK from Oxford was there also,
Who’d studied philosophy, long ago.
. . .
For he would rather have at his bed’s head
Some twenty books, all bound in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher in base,
He had but little gold within his suitcase;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,
And then he’d pray diligently for the souls
Of those who gave him resources to attend schools.

Ironically, whenever I think of this clerk, I think of the contemporary student bowed down by the weight of his backpack. He is bent over with the weight of not necessarily knowledge, but of books that have become heavier and heavier through the years. Only a few publishers have come to monopolize the textbook market angling for a nicer share of what’s in his pocket giving him little choice but to spend on his prescribed books.]

Portability Down the Ages

English: A briefcase made of aluminium. Españo...

Yet, the image of the student bent down with books is soon fading right in front of our eyes. We have entered the electronic age quite seriously in some parts of the world and others are soon to follow. Our focus of displaying erudition has moved from the personal library and the living room to our social media pages.

We want to be the first ones to display articles that might go viral. We want to decorate our walls and profiles with articles that will tell people who we are. Most often, we share less to share knowledge than to gain some recognition from friends about what we found, what aspect of ourselves it displays to others, what we’re thinking now or to extend a conversation we already had with tea in that bookshelf-covered living room.

Every time there’s a huge social change, we are all heady with a feeling of how different it is now, how much smarter we are now than before, what a breakthrough it has been, how different we have to be to keep up. So how about checking to see how similarly we have been behaving too?

So in those good old library days, what made a piece of writing portable?

As people started becoming more and more mobile, books for sure got shorter and shorter. There were, of course, other reasons too but could it be that shorter books were easier to share? We moved from the eighteenth-century multi-volume novel to the nineteenth century single volume popular novel to the twentieth-century short story. Where are we headed now?

Despite the huge changes in the world of reading and writing we are encountering today, I’ve observed too many parallels between where we were then and where we are now to not hope that we can learn from our past habits.

How we shared then. How we share now.

Divide : Red Red White
(Photo credit: monsieurlam)

Scraps of paper or a twelve volume book would be less likely to be shared then. If they were, they’d have to be separate volumes of books that could be relatively independently read.

It’s the same online. Articles that are too long or too short don’t get shared unless within a niche audience. Yet, substance matters. Longer, more in-depth articles are shared more while short pieces may just be read. People want credit for having shared something substantial.

Few people share because they’ve gained new knowledge or something has changed their beliefs (unless it is some kind of fact such as news).They share because the idea resonates with them and reinforces what they already like to hear or believe.

Those articles are especially popular which take up possible counterarguments to already existing beliefs that the reader holds but always end with affirmation of what the person who shares already believes. This is depressing since it suggests there is little possibility of doing anything new but maybe there are niche audiences that could be different.

The cool factor is important. People will decorate their walls with articles that will show them in a light which shows off an aspect of their identity they want to project. Titles and thumbnails serve as the leather binding or the gold lettering on the library shelves. Hence these have to match the cool factors considered desirable by the audience one wants to impress.

People will also share something that makes them angry or which violently opposes their belief systems. They will add their own blurb and share it with friends who will, in turn, read it and discuss it and share it talking to friends who have similar views on the issue and hence are equally strongly motivated by anger to share.

Such violent sharing often reminds me of liberal-minded people who sometimes keep a copy of a religious text of a religion they’ve never followed or are never likely to follow in their living room. The text often serves to exhibit a few aspects of their identity they like to project: (1) It shows how widely read they are. (2) It shows how open-minded they can be. (3) It helps them separate themselves from the ignorance of those who come visit and ask questions about the text.

Our knowledge is something we often wear like good designer clothes that set us apart from other people. In the absence of bookshelves where we can display knowledge, we’re decorating our walls with articles.

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15 thoughts on “Why we share and what can go viral”

  1. I am new to blogging (less than a month) so in my starting posts I found myself thinking more from this angle, ‘What will go viral’? And then I stopped myself, this is my blog, my words. I can share just what I want to, no pretence. No editing just for the sake of type of audience.
    And also, library days do still exist. At least for me, books will never cease to have that special smell and feel. Really great post!

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  2. Please forgive me. This is such a stupid thing to say. But… it scares me how much we think alike.

    I am not you–you are not me. I get that. You are young [my guess is you’re in your 20s] and I am 61 [almost 62]. Yet you see things in the eyes of someone much older and wiser than your age. Wisdom [at least some] has been bestowed upon you at an early age.

    In that regard, envy wants to take over. Why could I have been as wise as he when I was his age?

    Don’t try to be someone you are not. Don’t try to make your blog more appealing by enticing a certain group of followers. You are who you are. Be yourself. See what happens. If you do that, you will be REAL and you will be true to yourself. Writing is an extremely personal encounter. Don’t screw it up by trying to fit in. You are you. Take it or leave it.

    Thanks for your forthrightness so far.

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    1. Thanks for such a glowing compliment. I agree that one has to be oneself and there has to be substance within the form. But form is also important and so many people are ignored because they haven’t contemplated the form enough despite great content.

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  3. I buy books and have a collection that are signed by the author – okay, most are friends, but I cherish my books. I do have a kindle and I use all types of electronic media but I am aware that you only buy a license to view an e-book. It only lasts your lifetime. Books are forever, or as long as the binding holds out. Oddly some books I hear about on the web I will then buy as a physical book. Here the problem is that I don’t have enough shelf space… So the viral spread has worked, even if it has led to an old-fashioned outcome.

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      1. I know… I think I collect them. I do it with my audio books too. If the book is really good then I have to have the physical book… I don’t know why but it is reassuring to read it from the paper.

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  4. I have heard it said that most people lie about the books they are really reading or have enjoyed. So it would seem to be that by sharing more “high brow” posts we are continuing to pretend we are more intellectual than we actually are. Great post. It has made me think, and I will be looking more closely at what I see shared.
    In truth I do not share very often although I am only blogging nine months so maybe that has something to do with it. I wonder do many share?

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  5. I’m still buying books too. It’s ironic that sharing (in the sense of lending a book to others) is actually being made more difficult with new technology. We have numerous ways to recommend, but perhaps fewer ways to share. Nice job!

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