How Viral Content Originates

Jacob Catalano
Dec 6, 2018 · 9 min read

Since its inception in 2007 Twitter has been analogized as a megaphone; the place where anybody from anywhere can get an idea or thought out to the masses. 11 years later in 2018, this remains true. Underpinning this capability is Twitters’ uniquely potent combination of its connection graph, community norms and features which has made the platform a place that creates a disproportionate amount of the internet’s viral content.

On any social product the connection graph, community norms, and features will be the factors that determine the amount of viral content that emerges on the product. All three of these factors influence each other, but in general, the connection graph will determine the type of content that is created, the community norms determine the frequency at which content is shared and the features determine who you are sharing the content with. All three factors can be individually plotted on a “virality continuum”.

Connection graph = Relevance of content

Community Norms = Frequency of sharing

Features = Number of people shared with

However, it is not the cumulative location of where a product falls on the viral continuums that determine the amount of viral output, it is the “weakest link” or least viral of the three factors that determine the total viral output. This becomes clear after the framework is applied.

Let’s apply this framework to the following products: Facebook news feed (personal), Facebook news feed (brand), Facebook groups, Instagram Feed(public), Reddit and then lastly, Twitter.

Facebook Newsfeed (Personal)

  • Connection graph: People that you have met in real life, ranging from your closest friend to your furthest acquaintance.
  • Implication on the type of content shared: Mostly large life events are shared (Weddings, having a child, traveling, moving, new job, etc)
  • Viral continuum:
  • Community norms: It is somewhat strange to frequently post things that are not a large life event.
  • Implication on the frequency of content shared: very little content is shared due to large life events being relatively infrequent.
  • Viral continuum:
  • Features: Reactions, comments, share (to individuals or all friends).
  • Implication on who sees the content: People who are likely to engage with and/or get value out of the post.
  • Viral continuum:

Verdict: Personal users of the Facebook news feed rarely produce viral content due to the very low frequency in which content is shared and the fact that the majority of content that is shared is only relevant to a small number of people. These two factors make the ability to effortless share content to a large number of people irrelevant.

Facebook Newsfeed (brand)

  • Connection graph: people who like or follow the brands Facebook page.
  • Implication on the type of content shared: Anything that is relevant to the brand.
  • Viral continuum:
location depends on the brand
  • Community norms: Facebook will surface the right content to the right people.
  • Implication on the frequency of content shared: Brands post as much content as they possibly can.
  • Viral continuum:
  • Features: Reactions, comments, share (to individuals or all friends).
  • Implication on who sees the content: People who are likely to engage with and/or get value out of the post.
  • Viral continuum:

Verdict: Brands are much more capable of producing viral content on the Facebook news feed when compared to personal users. This can largely be attributed to how frequently they post content and the type of content that they produce. However, a brand is not a human and will never be a human. This limits the type of viral content that can be produced on Facebook.

Facebook Groups

  • Connection graph: People that belong to the group.
  • Implication on the type of content shared: Anything that is relevant to the group.
  • Viral continuum:
location depends on the group
  • Community norms: Post things that are relevant to the group.
  • Implication on the frequency of content shared: Post occur as often as relevant things happen.
  • Viral continuum
Location depends on how active the group is
  • Features: Like, comment — content only viewable to those in the group.
  • Implication on who sees the content: The maximum number of people that can see the content is the total number of people that are in the group.
  • Viral continuum:

Verdict: Even in a situation where a group is about a relatively broad subject and posts are regularly made, the viral output of the group will be extremely limited due to the fact that the maximum amount of people that can view the post is the total number of group members.

Instagram Feed (public account)

Connection graph: Same as Facebook Newsfeed (personal), but with the addition of “admirers” — people that follow you because they are interested in you/your Instagram persona.
Implication on the type of content shared: Your best self, life highlights, highly refined photos, post that match your persona.
Viral continuum:

depends on how interesting you can make your photos
  • Community norms: Make high quality, well thought through posts that will make sense to your followers.
  • Implication on the frequency of content shared: Making a post can be burdensome and identifying a post that is “Instagram worthy” can be challenging.
  • Viral continuum:
  • Features: Like, tag, direct message, explore.
  • Implication on who sees the content: Close friends and content people are likely to engage with.
  • Viral continuum:

Verdict: Instagram’s limiting factor of producing viral content is the community norms around post frequency. The norms demand that all posts be of a certain quality and because of which it makes posting experimental or unproven content unacceptable. Not being able to make these posts greatly stifles Instagram’s ability to originate viral content.

Reddit

Connection graph: The pseudonymous members of the particular subreddit.
Implication on the type of content shared: Content that is relevant to the subreddit.
Viral continuum:

depends on the size of the subreddit
  • Community norms: The best content will always rise to the top. Spamming is extremely frowned upon.
  • Implication on the frequency of content shared: There is no harm in making a submission that might not perform well, therefore many submissions are made, so long as you do not become viewed as a “spammer”
  • Viral continuum:
  • Features: upvote, one submission every 10 min, r/all
  • Implication on who sees the content: Only the most popular content is seen.
  • Viral continuum:
typically, the most upvoted submission from only the largest subreddits end up on r/all

Verdict: Reddit is quite good at originating viral content. Their biggest drawback is that a relevant, large and active subreddit must exist in order for a submission to make it to the top of the subreddit and only then the submission can utilize the r/all feature. This limits the type of viral content that Reddit can originate.

Twitter

  • Connection graph: people that are interested in you.
  • Implications of the type of content that is shared: This creates multiple types of Twitter (i.e. NBA Twitter, political Twitter, tech Twitter, etc.) and people share content that is relevant to the various types of Twitter that they belong to. All users belong to multiple types of Twitter because people can be interesting for multiple reasons.
  • Viral continuum:
location depends on the Tweet and the various types of people that it is interesting too
  • Community norms: Tweet, whenever you have something that you think will be interesting to your followers.
  • Implication on the frequency of content shared: Some people end up tweeting very often, while others do not. It is dependent on the individual.
  • Viral continuum:
Depends on the individual and how much they have to share
  • Features: Like, reply, retweet.
  • Implication on who sees the content: The retweet plus the connection graph make it so that a tweet can find its local maximum with relative ease (i.e a funny tweet will reach a much larger audience than a vegan tweet)
  • Viral continuum:
Note that this is the same as Facebook Newsfeed

Verdict: Twitter is phenomenal at creating viral content. This is because every tweet from every (public) user has the potential to go viral. While on a micro level it might be challenging for any given user to produce a viral tweet, in the macro viral tweets are created every day. As mentioned before, the “weakest link” is what determines the total viral output of a platform and Twitter has no glaring weaknesses in any of the three factors.

After evaluating the various social products, it becomes clear that Twitter is fantastic at creating all kinds of viral content, but what is most interesting is that they have a virtual monopoly on creating a particular kind of viral content. I call it viral human content. This is not viral news, or viral videos, or viral anything else. It is a type of content that is highly relatable and resonates with a particular type of person and it is almost impossible to find on other products. This is mostly because Twitter is the only platform where humans (not brands) are able to frequently post content that is capable of reaching a large number of people and this happens every day, in every category. The amount of people that the Tweet reaches (how viral it goes) is dependent on how relatable and how much it resonates with the people that identify with the category.

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

Parenting:

Startups:

Vegan:

Weird:

Funny:

The number of likes a tweet as is a good proxy for identifying the number of people the tweet was relevant to. Notice the difference in the number of likes on the vegan tweet, which is a niche category, versus the funny tweet which is a much more broad category.

Now, just because Twitter has a virtual monopoly on originating this content, it does not mean that they have a monopoly on distributing this content. Viral human tweets are finding a way to reach every single person who might find the tweet relevant so long as they have an internet connection. Facebook pages, Instagram pages, “LinkedInfluencers”, and all other social products have some place where viral human tweets are being reposted. This trend is most prevalent on Instagram with massive meme accounts, established media companies and up-and-coming pages building their entire page around reposting these tweets.

It is easy to understand why it is appealing for these accounts to repost viral human tweets; they are proven to perform well, original, easy to post and free (the best practice is to ask for permission and then tag the individual who made the tweet). What is less easy to understand is how these accounts go about finding these tweets, as Twitter has not done anything to make these tweets easily discoverable. This is why we have created xZeitgeist.com, it is a tool that categorizes and ranks tweets, making it easy for accounts to discover the viral tweets that are most relevant to their audience.

Helping these accounts discover, create and share content that is relatable and resonates with their audience is what we do and right now the best way to do this is by building tools that help people discover the copious amount of viral content that originates on Twitter. However, looking forward, I see a potential viral content juggernaut lurking in the shadows. In my next post, I will apply the same framework to the various stories products and explain why I believe Snapchat is best positioned to achieve the same kind of viral content originating monopoly in the stories era that Twitter achieved in the feed era.

Jacob
www.xZeitgeist.com


A special thank you to Turner Novak and Daniel Sinclair who helped me edit this post

Jacob Catalano

Written by

building MEMEBOX https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/memebox-find-share-memes/id1452283956?ls=1&mt=8

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