Here Are the Feels That Make Internet Things Go Viral

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To an astounding and increasing degree, “viral” “content” is shaping people’s perceptions of the world. A 2015 survey found that 63 percent of U.S. Facebook users (or over half the population) get their news on the platform, with similar percentages for Twitter users and even higher for Redditors. And with so much of the work of the digital newsroom being devoted to hopping on freshly minted memes — whether Chewbacca masks or white Vans — understanding why some pieces bounce hyperkinetically around the web and others flop is high-stakes research. Plus, it helps us see how humans live online.

To that end, an Italian-French study presented at the World Wide Web Conference provides some really interesting insights for anyone interested in how human beings respond to the buzzing maelstrom of content bearing down on them whenever they go online. Marco Guerini of the Italian research institute Fondazione Bruno Kessler and Jacopo Staiano of the Sorbonne drew on the largest-yet virality data set to better understand the emotions that drive sharing. The set wasn’t just large, but elegant: Guerini and Staiano chose articles from two publications (the social news site Rappler and the popular Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera) where users can express their “affective feedback” to a piece via click, similar to the emoji reactions that Facebook rolled out last February.

In total, the researchers examined 1.5 million reactions to 65,000 news articles, with the goal of understanding whether and to what extent the emotional feedback a given article received could predict how likely it was to be shared (on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook) or commented upon. The affective feedback (inspired, annoyed, happy, sad, afraid) was mapped onto a model for mapping emotions called VAD, standing for valence, arousal, and dominance. “High valence” is psychospeak for “happy feels”; “high arousal” means excited or angry; and high dominance denotes empowerment.

Across the two languages, the researchers found, the stories that were most widely shared were high in “dominance,” or the feeling of being in control. Posts that make you feel happy or inspired are high in dominance, the research says, while stories that make you feel sad are disempowering. (This is also why “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity” is perhaps the finest BuzzFeed post of all, and like all quality vintages, it only gets better with age).

While dominance led to sharing in this data set, arousal (the feeling of being upset or excited, as indicated by giving angry affective feedback) predicted commenting. So if a story makes you really upset — as perhaps may be exploited by a presidential candidate or two — you’ll be more likely to comment, providing further explanation for why internet comments tend toward viciousness.

In an analysis of the study in Harvard Business Review, a team of viral marketers from the marketing firm Fractl pointed out a bunch of pieces that nail the uplift that leads to shares, like a photo of Dutch paramedics who cooked some kids dinner (and did the dishes!) after their hypoglycemic mom was taken to the hospital, or the Always “Like a Girl” campaign that turned gender roles on their ear with the grace of a judo master. It’s a clear message for those of us whose careers are tied to web traffic: Make things that inspire people. Or just outrage them.