The question predates Berger’s interest in it by centuries. In 350 B.C., Aristotle wasalready wonderingwhat could make content—in his case, a speech—persuasive and memorable, so that its ideas would pass from person to person. The answer, he argued, was three principles: ethos, pathos, and logos. Content should have an ethical appeal, an emotional appeal, or a logical appeal. A rhetorician strong on all three was likely to leave behind a persuaded audience. Replace rhetorician with online content creator, and Aristotle’s insights seem entirely modern. Ethics, emotion, logic—it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense. If you look at the last few links you shared on your Facebook page or Twitter stream, or the last article you e-mailed or recommended to a friend, chances are good that they’ll fit into those categories.
Aristotle’s diagnosis was broad, and tweets, of course, differ from Greek oratory. So Berger, who is now a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, worked with another Penn professor, Katherine Milkman, to put his interest in content-sharing to anempirical test. Together, they analyzed just under seven thousand articles that had appeared in theTimesin 2008, between August 30th and November 30th, to try to determine what distinguished pieces that made the most-emailed list. After controlling for online and print placement, timing, author popularity, author gender, length, and complexity, Berger and Milkman found that two features predictably determined an article’s success: how positive its message was and how much it excited its reader. Articles that evoked some emotion did better than those that evoked none—an article with the headline “baby polar bear’s feeder dies” did better than “teams prepare for the courtship of lebron james.” But happy emotions (“wide-eyed new arrivals falling in love with the city”) outperformed sad ones (“web rumors tied to korean actress’s suicide”).
Just how arousing each emotion was also made a difference. If an article made readers extremely angry or highly anxious—stories about a political scandal or new risk factor for cancer, for example—they became just as likely to share it as they would a feel-good story about a cuddly panda. (In this particular study, certain pieces were coded as eliciting arousing emotions; in afollow-up, arousal was further measured physiologically.)
Berger and Milkman went on to test their findings in a more controlled setting, presenting students with content and observing their propensity to pass it along. Here, too, they found the same patterns. Amusing stories that had been chosen specifically because they were positive and arousing were shared more frequently than less amusing ones. Anger-inducing stories were shared more than moderate takes on the same events. When the researchers manipulated the framing of a story to be either negative (a person is injured) or positive (an injured person is “trying to be better again”), they found that the positive framing made a piece far more popular. The findings have since been replicated by several independent research teams, who have found that videos that shock or inspire aremore likelyto be shared on Facebook andmore likelyto gain viral traction.
Positivity and arousal go a long way toward explaining the success of Web sites like Upworthy, which started in 2012 and is known for using headlines designed to make you laugh, cry, or feel righteous anger (for example, on the site right now, “A Hilarious Stand-Up Routine About How Commercials for Black People Actually Sound” and “The Struggles of Being a Woman in a Male-Dominated Field Summed Up in a Short Comic”). Even the site’s tearjerker content has a positive message: “Watch a Teenager Bring His Class to Tears Just by Saying a Few Words,” reads one. Despite launching less than two years ago, the site has steadily climbed the ranks of Internet popularity, ranking third in aDecember ratingof Facebook shares, right behind BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. Its posts are like the infamous cat videos on YouTube—funny, positive, and arousing—but taken to a new level. Still, as Berger points out, “There are lots of cat videos that don’t get shared”—and lots of would-be Upworthys that never quite make it. So what characterizes the ones that do?
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