Have you seen a funny internet video and noticed that it has millions of views, yet your video that you posted to Youtube only has 12 views. What’s the difference? Why do some videos go viral?
It’s one of the most popular online videos ever produced, having been viewed 355 million times on YouTube. At first glance, it’s hard to understand why the clip is so famous, since nothing much happens. Two little boys, Charlie and Harry, are sitting in a chair when Charlie, the younger brother, mischievously bites Harry’s finger. There’s a shriek and then a laugh. The clip is called “Charlie Bit My Finger—Again!”
Why has this footage gone viral? The answer, according to a new study by Jonah Berger, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has to do with the visceral emotions it arouses in viewers.
Here’s the thing about Harry and Charlie—they are incredibly expressive kids. In the span of 56 seconds, we see their faces go from anticipation to agony to laughter. Just when we’re worried that Harry might actually be hurt, he breaks out in a wide smile. The relief is palpable, the delight infectious. (Harry’s adorable British accent doesn’t hurt, either.)
Mr. Berger argues that the popularity of such videos is rooted in the way they excite the body, inducing a spectrum of physiological changes. When we watch Harry and Charlie, we briefly enter into a state of “high arousal,” as the autonomic nervous system mirrors the flurry of feelings on-screen. Our heart rate increases and sweat glands open; the body prepares for action. These are the same physical changes that occur when we encounter any strongly emotional content, from a scary movie to a sappy love poem.
In his study, Mr. Berger demonstrates that such states of arousal make people far more likely to share information. For instance, when he had subjects jog in place for 60 seconds—Mr. Berger wanted to trigger the symptoms of arousal directly—the number of people who emailed a news article to their friends more than doubled. He also boosted levels of “social transmission” by showing his subjects frightening and funny videos first. “Levels of arousal spill over,” Mr. Berger says. “When people are aroused, they are much more likely to pass on information.”
This builds on previous work by Mr. Berger in which he analyzed 7,500 articles that appeared on the most-emailed list of the New York Times between August 2008 and February 2009. While Mr. Berger initially assumed that people would share articles with practical implications—he imagined lots of pieces on diets and gadgets—he discovered instead that the most popular stories were those that triggered the most arousing emotions, such as awe and anger. We don’t want to share facts—we want to share feelings.
Why does this desire exist? Decades of research in social psychology have shown that people often share strong emotions as a means of fostering connection and solidarity.
“If I’m angry, and then you get angry, we can bond over what we’re feeling,” Mr. Berger says.
The Internet reflects this ancient social instinct. The only difference is that, when online, we often can’t express our emotions directly. (It’s not easy expressing genuine joy in a tweet.) Instead, we’re forced to spread arousal through short videos and articles, using the images and words of others as a proxy. “It’s difficult to communicate strong feelings when we’re not communicating face-to-face,” Mr. Berger says. “But sharing content on the Web allows us to get a parallel kind of connection.”
And this is why the online world is so biased toward arousing material. Although the Internet is often described as an infinite library of information, the most popular things online typically aren’t very informative.
Because people have a deep need to share their emotions, there will always be an insatiable demand for funny baby videos, angry political rants and Justin Bieber songs. Such content can often seem frivolous and superficial. But the content isn’t the point. The viral clip is merely a means to an end, an efficient way to tell someone else that, for a few moments at least, we’d like to feel the same thing.
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