What Is Contagious Is Random

Contagious: Why Things Catch OnMy boss has tasked me with the job of revitalizing the blog for our flagship website. This is a job I worked very hard to avoid. Because a professional blog is different from a personal blog like Frankly Curious. In general, people come here because they think I’m vaguely interesting and they want to know what I’ll rant about. But a professional blog is all about trying to find market niches and determine what articles will take off — go viral. And so he recommended that I read Jonah Berger’s book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

Given that he’s a nice guy, he sent me the book along with two others that I might actually like. I was highly suspicious of the Berger book as I am all such books. Why do things catch on? Well, I can tell you why once they catch on. Or at least I can provide you with a plausible sounding reason. But can you really predict what is going to take off? To quote William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything.” In Adventures in the Screen Trade, he wrote about a collection of films and why producers thought they would be great successes. All the films were, in fact, flops. So he went through the earlier happy talk to explain why it was wrong.

Of course, I don’t think that Gibson’s reasons for films flopping were right either. For example, he said that Pennies From Heaven flopped because Steve Martin wasn’t a singer and a dancer. Personally, I think it flopped because it’s an incredibly depressing film. Coming off The Jerk did people really want to see that? Did people really want to see that film under any circumstances? I wrote a largely positive review of the film, but that is looking at it as art — not as popular entertainment. Regardless, my ideas are no better than Goldman’s; they are just guesses.

Nobody knows anything.

Can We Predict What Will Be Contagious?

The issue is not confined to Hollywood. We’re really good at finding patterns in things. But that doesn’t mean we’ve figured out reality and it certainly doesn’t mean that knowing some patterns lead to actionable intelligence. In Contagious, Berger lists “Six Principles of Contagiousness.” Here they are with my brief descriptions:

Social currency
This is the kind of thing that makes people want to share it with others. For example, when I hear a particularly clever line in Bob’s Burgers, I want to share it with people. When I learn about a bizarre bit of computer trivia, I want to share it with any person I think will understand it.
Some things trigger other things. For example, if people mention chatbots or AI, it will trigger me to tell the story of Robert Epstein.
When people connect emotionally with something, they are more likely to share it.
If others see people doing something, they are more likely to follow along. I’ve thought that a lot of fashion (eg, baggy pants) were due to someone having no option but to dress a certain way, and so doing it proudly rather than apologizing for it.
Practical value
People are more likely to share things that are useful. This appears to be why people are always forwarding nutrition information to me. Note to everyone who knows me: I don’t care.
Is there a broader narrative that the story falls into? Note: this is how racism works.

This is all fine, but I think it is useless. For example, what is it that makes something have social currency? What is “cool”? These six principles are really just a way of explaining why things have taken off — not why things will take off. As Berger himself notes: plenty of cute animal videos go viral, but far more do nothing at all. And it is usually the case that there isn’t anything particularly different between them.

Theories Don’t Help

What’s more, all of these principles are common sense. You can boil them down into one really useless sentence, “People share things that they find interesting.” The big question remains: why do they find them interesting? And I don’t think a theory helps you there. You still have to go on a case by case basis. And you have to accept that a lot of great and interesting work still won’t catch on because that’s just the way the world is.

“Nobody knows anything.” —William Goldman

I think that books like Contagious act as pacifiers. They give people something to hang onto in a world that is pretty much random. And now, the internet is not really about making content that people will push; it is about making content that computers will push. Think about Upworthy — the viral content machine. Inside of six months, it saw its traffic fall by over 50%. This did not happen because the content changed; it happened because Facebook changed a computer algorithm.

This is all very disturbing from the standpoint of all content creators. It’s as though companies like Google and Facebook have become gods and we do our best to please them. But they are no less fickle than the Abrahamic god. But the larger issue is that people end up with worse content, because everyone is writing for these gods now.

I know this very well from my work here. I know the kind of articles that get a lot of hits. If I wanted to push my numbers up, I’d be writing a lot more about the presidential election. Instead, yesterday, I wrote about something that I know people don’t like reading about: central banks. But I think the issue is important. It’s the sort of thing that people should be exposed to even if they don’t care about it. But I’m not here to make money, so I can do that. I could never do that in my day job.

But I still think it is a fool’s errand to try to find contagious content. I think Henri, the existential cat is one of the most brilliant ideas ever. But the original video has only three million views. (Note: the second Henri was far more popular, but far less successful.) Meanwhile, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift are superstars without a lick of talent between them. Emotion? Practical value? What’s contagious is what we learned in Caps for Sale: monkey see as monkey do. Except now it is: human see as computer do.

The rest is chaos, regardless of what theory you want to present to explain it. Again: nobody knows anything.

6 thoughts on “What Is Contagious Is Random

  1. Very little goes mega-viral. Most of the Yewtewbers I follow have like a million subscribers but rarely get more than a couple hundred thousand hits on their videos.

    As for some things I have noticed: stuff that is macabre, gross and super adorable will go viral. Funny is hit or miss and honestly I think it is based on the day and boredom of the people sharing it.

    • But the question is whether you can predict what will go viral — or at least increase your odds. Personally, I think it’s all common sense. Is it something a lot of people would be interested in? Is it well made? I don’t think you can do much better than that.

  2. It seems pretty obvious that since Jonah Berger makes his money writing books and teaching at a college, and not monetizing the Next Thing to haul in all that sweet cash, there can’t really be any predictive value to his ideas. He needs to do seminars and poach the Rich Dad Poor Dad guy’s revenue stream.

    • Yes, that is certainly true. It’s not that his theory is bad. And he’s a good writer. As an academic, being interesting is enough. And the theory may help people to think about content creation more deeply. But it still comes down to brilliance and luck.

  3. It’s funny that you mention Pennies From Heaven. I really liked the movie when it first came out even though I don’t care for Steve Martin. I liked it but it did depress the hell out me. I still have not seen it again even though I think about the movie and have thought about another viewing. I always change my mind when I get the chance to see it again.

    • I didn’t find it upsetting when I watched it a second time. Have you checked out the BBC series with Bob Hoskins? That’s worth checking out. (OMG: I didn’t realize Hoskins had died. That’s sad.)

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