The Social Psychology Of Memes

Annalee Newitz offers a theory of virality:

To share a story is in part to take ownership of it, especially because you are often able to comment on a story that you are sharing on social media. If you can share a piece of information that’s an absolute truth – whether that’s how to uninstall apps on your phone, or what the NSA is really doing – you too become a truth teller. And that feels good. Just as good as it does to be the person who has the cutest cat picture on the Internet.

So that leaves us with the stories that don’t make it. These are the articles and essays that have fallen into the valley of ambiguity – reports on important scientific findings with difficult-to-interpret results, political news with a long and tangled back story attached, and opinion essays that require us to account for points of view that may be unfamiliar or strange.

We just want to share stories that make us seem like we know something. Most of all, we don’t want to say something that we didn’t intend.

And that is the danger with any story that falls into the valley of ambiguity. We can’t be sure how people will take it. We don’t want to risk our reputations on a story that can be taken more than one way.

More than anything, the fear of a smeared reputation is what creates that dip in virality. Sharing a story means that in some sense we stake our reputation on it. That’s why sharing a story is not the same thing as enjoying a story, reading a story, or even learning from a story. I know for certain that there are plenty of stories that get read, but not shared. I have seen the statistics on io9’s back end. But when we measure a story’s success by virality, which is what we must do in the age of social media, the content of our popular culture changes. We measure success by what people aren’t afraid to share with their neighbors, rather than what people will read on their own.

A good recent example of a Dish post that was read a lot but not relatively shared a lot was the controversial debate between Max Blumenthal and Eric Alterman over the former’s new book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Many posts that day that were less polarizing – about gays in the South, Ted Cruz’s nutty Christianist dad, and sizing up Election Day, for example – garnered many more Facebook likes than the Blumenthal-Alterman showdown, which was the most popular post of the day by traffic. Evidently many readers don’t want others to know they “like” a post criticizing Greater Israel.