There it was, virtual gold: a video of a firefighter resuscitating a kitten trapped in a smoky home.
Neetzan Zimmerman, then an editor at Gawker, a news and gossip site, knew it was destined for viral magic. But before he could publish a post about it, his editor made a request. Mr. Zimmerman was to include the epilogue omitted by most every other outlet: The kitten died of smoke inhalation soon after being saved.
For telling the whole story, Mr. Zimmerman paid a price.
“That video did tremendously well for practically everyone who posted it,” he recalled, “except Gawker.”
Video by GoPro
Why should one sad detail mean the difference between an online megahit and a dud? What makes content go viral?
Social sharing is powerful enough to topple dictatorships and profitable enough to merit multibillion-dollar investments. But scientists are only beginning to explore the psychological motivations that turn a link into “click bait” and propel a piece of content to Internet fame.
Their research may have significant implications for the media and advertising businesses, whose profits hinge on winning the cutthroat race for the attention of Internet users worldwide. Already, some notions of the ingredients in this modern alchemy are beginning to emerge.
If you want to melt the Internet, best to traffic in emotion, researchers have found. The emotional response can be happy or sad, but the more intense it is, the more likely the story is to be passed along.
In a study led by Rosanna Guadagno, a social psychologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, 256 participants much preferred to forward a funny video than one of a man treating his own spider bite. But they were likely to share any video that evoked an intense emotional response, Dr. Guadagno found.
Similarly, Jonah Berger and Katherine Milkman, professors at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, have found that uplifting articles are more likely than disheartening ones to land on the most-emailed list at The New York Times. But even stories evoking rage or other negative, strong emotions are emailed by readers more often than ones that are simply depressing.
“People share things they have strong emotional reactions to, especially strong positive reactions,” Dr. Guadagno said.
Sharing is not just how information ripples across communities; it’s also how emotions are disseminated. Recently, analysts at Facebook, Yale and the University of California, San Diego, reviewed more than a billion posts by Facebook users, and found that when users vented on a rainy day, their friends in other cities posted bleak status updates more frequently than normal.
But positive status updates were even more contagious, prompting upbeat updates from friends at even greater rates. The conclusion: Online, as in real life, feelings can be caught like the flu.
The most shared post at Upworthy, a site for shareable content, is a video about a boy who died of cancer, but not before producing a hit song and performing sold-out shows. The post has racked up nearly 20 million views, thanks in part to the type of methodically calculated headline that has become the site’s trademark: “This Amazing Kid Got to Enjoy 19 Awesome Years on This Planet. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.” Video by SoulPancake
“Even though it was a really sad story, it was a story that gave you something to do with that sadness,” said Upworthy’s analytics czar, Daniel Mintz.
For many people, sharing seems to be a way to process the highs and lows they feel while consuming content online. Mr. Berger, who studied the Times articles, conducted a follow-up study in which he instructed one group of students to jog in place for 60 seconds before going online, while a comparison group rested before logging on.
The runners were more than twice as likely as the sedentary group to email the same article, he found. Why? Because they were already physiologically aroused, Mr. Berger theorizes, and forwarding or liking something serves as a form of release.
“Arousal is an aversive state, so people want to get out of it by sharing,” Mr. Berger said. Misery loves company, and so does any sort of deeply affecting feeling.
But pressing the share button can also be driven by ego. Constructing and refining an online persona has become a daily task for many, experts say; posting a link that evokes laughter or gasps can confer status on the sharer.
No surprise, then, that data recently compiled by Chartbeat, a company that measures online traffic, suggests that people often post articles on Twitter that they haven’t actually read.
“What we found is that there is no relationship whatsoever with the amount that the article is shared and the amount of engaged time and attention given to that article,” said Tony Haile, Chartbeat’s chief executive.
Like a bookshelf stocked with classic tomes that have never been opened, the links that adorn Facebook walls and Twitter accounts are markers of the people we aspire to be. And online media companies are increasingly aware that their role is to package content that will make each member of the masses who disseminates it burnish an online reputation while feeling, oddly, unique.
Mr. Zimmerman, formerly of Gawker, saw it as his job to help the reader feel like “that guy who is always plugged in and tapped into what’s going on.”
“People build their online identities by sharing,” he said. “They want people to think of them a certain way.”
© 2014 The New York Times Company