Being social on social media.

When will your next post go viral—or will it never?

The world is a connected place, and most people are connected to their social groups online. The internet has evolved into a tool that creates and manages social connections and community. If someone has some information that they think has value, they'll share it through their digital networks. 

How many people would wait before they next saw their friends to tell them in person all about this wonderful meal they had for brunch at the weekend? Think about Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and/ or Facebook and photos of perfect-looking plates of ricotta hotcakes decorated with flowers, often snapped, shared and tagged with the handles of everyone present at the table, even before the dish has been tasted.

So why do we do this? And when don't we do this?

The average Facebook user has 338 Facebook friends. By contrast, the average person has a series of friends in numbers:

  • 150 casual friends (people you'd invite to a large party)
  • 50 close friends (people you'd invite to a group dinner)
  • 15 intimate friends (people you'd confide in about most things)
  • 5 best friends (often family members, too; your close support group)

In fact, another study claims that we only truly have two confidantes.

Knowing these numbers, plus the fact that social media networks make the sharing of information very easy, means that anything anybody shares online is likely to be seen by many more people than would generally occur offline. News travels fast, and it travels faster online; something that has value can go viral extremely quickly if people see a reason to share it.

When we share something online, it could be out of genuine interest in spreading general knowledge, in entertaining our friends, or in better educating the world around us. Biologically speaking, we are hard-wired to exist in groups, and learn group customs and social hierarchies. We need to feel a sense of belonging, and learn methods of communication that provide group survival, status and accentuated group harmony. The way to move up in a group's social hierarchy is by 'earning' it, that is, to earn social currency, which is often that sub-conscious reason for sharing content online.

Social currency is a kind of value that people earn from interacting and being social with others. Like many primates, humans have a strong desire to earn respect and admiration from others. One way we earn social currency is by contributing in a positive way to a group. Shared interests are one of the forces that bind a group together. Social currency acts as a powerful motivator for people to share information with others—a humorous image, an idea, or a movie.

Sometime back, Cheryl, the director of an advertising agency, rang asking for my help. A particular online advertisement for a new brand of underwear wasn't going viral as they had hoped. The ad was a personalised story type advertisement, a technique that first asks the viewer to upload a photo of themself and is eventually included in the story. (The aim is to surprise the viewer who isn't expecting to become part of the story.) I uploaded a photo of myself, selected male for my gender, and sat back and watched.

The movie began with a pan of a half-lit, retrofitted studio apartment. The camera focused, and a woman appeared from the shadows of the apartment wearing lingerie. She glided past a coffee table, pausing to pick up a magazine, and headed towards her bed. She lay on the bed and opened the magazine, flipping through a few pages before pausing on one with intent. The camera zoomed in on the page to show a muscular, tanned male posing in a G-string. The camera zoomed in further to reveal the face—it was me!

Then things got steamy—as the women stared at the picture she began to caress herself, and... I flashed back to my phone conversation with Cheryl, and felt uncomfortable.

It was obvious to me why the ad hadn't gone viral. The problem wasn't the quality of the production—clearly a lot of effort and expense had gone into it. Where it had gone wrong was that it assumed that sex sells. Or more precisely, that showing provocative content makes people want to share.

The reason why Cheryl's advertisement hadn't gone viral was because there was no reason to share. In fact, it actually contained a disincentive to share. Most people would feel quite awkward sharing something sexually explicit in their social networks. I suspect many people would be worried about signalling to others something twisted about their personality. It created a reason to not share. You see, people share things online not just because it's interesting, but also because they have an instinctual desire to signal to others something about who they are.