Fifty Shades of Grey, the viral myth, and the truth about how things get popular

Penguin Press
13 min readFeb 23, 2017


An excerpt from Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction

It’s become fashionable to talk about ideas as if they were diseases. Some pop songs are infectious, and some products are contagious. Advertisers and producers have developed a theory of “viral” marketing, which assumes that simple word of mouth can easily take a small idea and turn it into a phenomenon. This has fed a popular conception of buzz that says companies don’t need sophisticated distribution strategies for their product to go big. If they make something that is inherently infectious, they can sit back and wait for it to explode like a virus.

In epidemiology, “viral” has a specific meaning. It refers to a disease that infects more than one person before it dies or the host does. Such a disease has the potential to spread exponentially. One person infects two. Two infect four. Four infect eight. And before long, it’s a pandemic.

Do ideas ever go viral in that way? For a long time, nobody could be sure. It’s difficult to precisely track word-of-mouth buzz or the spread of a fashion, (like skinny jeans) or an idea (like universal suffrage) from person to person. So, by degrees, “That thing went viral” has become a fancy way of saying, “That thing got big really quickly, and we’re not sure how.”

But there is a place where ideas leave an information trail: on the Internet. When I post an article on Twitter, it is shared and reshared, and each step of this cascade is traceable. Scientists can follow the trail of e-mails or Facebook posts as they move around the world. In the digital world, they can finally answer the question: Do ideas really go viral?

The answer appears to be a simple no. In 2012, several researchers from Yahoo studied the spread of millions of online messages on Twitter. More than 90 percent of the messages didn’t diffuse at all. A tiny percentage, about 1 percent, was shared more than seven times. But nothing really went fully viral — not even the most popular and shared messages. The vast majority of the news that people see on Twitter — around 95 percent — comes directly from its original source or from one degree of separation.

If ideas and articles on the Internet essentially never go viral, then how do some things still achieve such massive popularity so quickly? Viral spread isn’t the only way that a piece of content can reach a large population, the researchers said. There is another mechanism called “broadcast diffusion” — many people getting information from one source. They wrote:

Broadcasts can be extremely large — the Super Bowl attracts over 100 million viewers, while the front pages of the most popular news websites attract a similar number of daily visitors — and hence the mere observation that something is popular, or even that it became so rapidly, is not sufficient to establish that it spread in a manner that resembles [a virus].

On the Internet, where it seems like everything is going viral, perhaps very little or even nothing is. They concluded that popularity on the Internet is “driven by the size of the largest broadcast.” Digital blockbusters are not about a million one-to-one moments as much as they are about a few one-to-one-million moments.

Extended to the full world of hits, this new finding suggests that articles, songs, and products don’t spread from person to person. Instead, almost all popular products and ideas have blockbuster moments where they spread from one source to many, many individuals at the same time.

On January 6, 2012, Anne Messitte, then the publisher of the Vintage Books imprint at Random House, received an on-demand paperback copy of Fifty Shades of Grey that had been passing around the publicity and editorial departments of another imprint at her company.

It was a Friday. On Saturday, she read the book in a single sitting. Messitte knew little about the novel beyond the fact that Fifty Shades was generating buzz among mothers of the Upper East Side and Westchester, a solidly upper-middle-class county just north of New York City. “I went to dinner with some friends that night, and they asked what I did all day,” she told me. “I told them that I read the first Fifty Shades book. Immediately, somebody at dinner said her friend in Westchester had read it and loved it.” The following week, Messitte read the second installment, Fifty Shades Darker, and felt determined to meet with James. There was just one problem: “E. L. James” was a pseudonym and first-time writer. Messitte didn’t know how to find her.

Meanwhile, another influential New York City mother was making a simultaneous discovery. Lyss Stern, the founder of Diva Moms, a social group for well-heeled mothers with an Upper East Side élan, visited the large Barnes and Noble in Union Square to find Fifty Shades, at a friend’s suggestion. But the author name “E. L. James” wasn’t even in the Barnes and Noble system in January 2012. “The woman at the counter looked at me like I was crazy,” Stern told me.

So Stern went online and bought the e-book. Like Messitte, she finished it in a day. Suddenly obsessed, she evangelized Fifty Shades in her DivaMoms newsletters and invited E. L. James to New York to attend a book party in her honor at a large Chelsea penthouse apartment.

One of the subscribers to the Diva Moms newsletters was Messitte. She e-mailed Stern to attend the event, identifying herself as both a reader and a publisher. Stern responded by e-mail that the event had sold out and forwarded Messitte’s inquiry to Valerie Hoskins, a film agent who was helping James navigate her growing fame.

On January 24, 2012, the three women — Messitte, Hoskins, and E. L. James — met at the Vintage offices in Manhattan to discuss the possibility of relaunching Fifty Shades with a paperback publication. James was hearing directly from readers, booksellers, and librarians about their difficulty sourcing the book, and she was eager to make it more available.

James had strong and specific opinions about how she wanted her book to be presented — in ways, such as packaging, that were unexpected for the romance genre. She had designed her own covers — the now iconic silver necktie, a winking allusion to both the corporate setting and the bondage theme. “I thought it was brilliant,” Messitte said. “People thinking conventionally had told Erika that it should look more like a romance. Erika wanted it to be different. I think the covers’ distinction opened the books up to a much broader audience.”

At the time, Messitte was a publisher of neither romance nor erotica, free from preconditioned notions of the genre’s conventions. The three women spoke about publishing the book not as a category romance novel, but as a front-of-store bestseller — hoping there might be a chance to launch a book that would transcend genre, trying to position it as a cultural phenomenon.

I met Messitte at her office in 2016. I wanted to learn more about the story of the Fifty Shades blockbuster, but I also wanted to know more about its publisher. In January 2012, the book was a blip on the publishing radar. In a few months, it would be the pop culture sensation of the world. What did Messitte see in the book before the world did? She certainly didn’t see hard evidence of sales. According to the best available public data, Fifty Shades hadn’t sold more than a few thousand paperback copies in the entire United States in early 2012.

But Messitte was closely monitoring the conversation building online. She knew that uncommon excitement precedes uncommon sales, and the reaction to Fifty Shades was deeply uncommon. Across New York City and its suburbs, a certain demographic of women — smart and well-read women with broad social connections — were clamoring for the book. “So much of this business comes down to gut and informed risk, and we could see that something was happening,” she said. Google searches for the book spiked first in states with large urban populations, like New York, New Jersey, and Florida.

“According to the best available public data, Fifty Shades hadn’t sold more than a few thousand paperback copies in the entire United States in early 2012.”

On February 10, after two weeks of e-mails and calls, Messitte sent Hoskins an offer for Vintage to publish the Fifty Shades trilogy, and after a month of negotiation between the author, the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and the Writer’s Coffee Shop, a deal was signed on March 7, 2012, to move the publishing rights to Vintage.

Two weeks later, on March 18, Fifty Shades of Grey debuted at the number one spot on the New York Times combined print and e-book fiction bestseller list. On March 25, Fifty Shades Darker joined, taking the number two spot. The following day, Universal Pictures and Focus Features announced that the companies would partner in the development of a film based on the first installment of the Fifty Shades trilogy. On April 1, Fifty Shades Freed appeared on the bestseller list in the third place spot.

If a book sells one million copies total, it is a historic bestseller. In the spring and summer of 2012, Random House was printing one million copies of the Fifty Shades trilogy every week. Now with more than 150 million sold copies, Fifty Shades of Grey is the bestselling book in the history of Random House.

The Fifty Shades story is a paradox. How could a book go viral in a world where “nothing really goes viral”?

The nondigital world does not provide researchers or journalists with clear map of influence and social spread. We have to make some inferences. But after corresponding with Anne Messitte, Lyss Stern, Amanda Hayward, and E. L. James herself, I’ve come to think that although Fifty Shades has become a poster child of virality, it was really the beneficiary of three distinct one-to-one-million broadcasts.

First, it benefited from a prototypical dark broadcast, which practically nobody reporting on the Fifty Shades phenomenon seems to have paid much attention to — except for James, herself. “When I published the books with the Writer’s Coffee Shop, several fans of the story gave the book five stars on [the reader review site] Goodreads,” she told me. Goodreads has readers choice awards every year, and because Fifty Shades of Grey had so many five star reviews, it was nominated in the Best Romance category in November 2011.

In the final tally, Fifty Shades of Grey received 3,815 votes — more than any other romance novel except for Lover Unleashed, by the bestselling author J. R. Ward. This second-place finish brought the novel to the attention of not just other romance readers, but also Hollywood executives. By December, James recalled, she was fetching inquiries from movie studios seeking rights to the novel.

“Goodreads had a great deal to do with bringing [Fifty Shades] to readers’ attention,” she said. Like a celebrity tweeting a video to other celebrities, the Goodreads awards vote broadcast the novel to thousands of readers and entertainment executives.

This is a small but critical detail in the mystery of how Fifty Shades got so big so quickly. Several months before almost any casual, non-fanfic readers in the United States or Europe had heard of the book or its author, it had already attracted so many readers that it received the second-most online votes of any romance novel published that year.

If Fifty Shades hadn’t gone viral by November 2011, how did so many people already know about it?

This brings us to the second subtle broadcast — the world of itself. James was already a fanfic celebrity with more than five million readers before Random House found her. Long before she was “E. L. James,” Erika Leonard was Snowqueens Icedragon, a dark broadcaster writing for an absurdly large audience of readers that traditional New York publishers could not see or measure. They bought her e-book, gave it five stars on Goodreads, and voted for it as the romance novel of the year, all before the publishing world picked up on the budding phenomenon. When James published her book in 2011, she didn’t need a viral cascade to reach hundreds of thousands of devoted readers. She already had them.

Third, to reach a truly global audience and become one of the bestselling authors of all time, James needed the distribution and marketing power of a large publisher like Random House. The vast majority of the book’s publicity and success happened after Messitte and James agreed to the deal on March 2, 2012. One week later, on March 9, the New York Times trumpeted the Random House acquisition in a page-one story that went out to millions of people in print and online. In early April, an interview with James was the splashy cover story of the magazine Entertainment Weekly, with a circulation of around two million. On

April 17, she appeared in interviews on both ABC’s Good Morning America and NBC’s Today show, two morning programs with a combined audience of about ten million viewers. The following day, Time magazine, the most read newsweekly in the country, with more than ten million combined print and digital readers, named her one of the world’s one hundred most influential people in its cover story package. There is no question that a good deal of the success of Fifty Shades was due to ordinary word of mouth. Indeed, Messitte was initially drawn to James’s work in part because so many people had seemed desperate to talk about it.

But there is also no question that Fifty Shades reached historic levels of success because of several one-to-one-million moments. The initial publication of the e-book reached many fanfic readers with a single strike, like a bowling ball knocking over a group of prearranged pins. The book’s popularity was distributed via many traditional media outlets, who evangelized the books to tens of millions of newspaper readers and television viewers; then other media outlets, like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, further evangelized the book by praising its success to an audience of millions more.

That is the difference between virality in epidemiology and culture. A real virus spreads only between people. But a “viral” idea can spread between broadcasts. For most so-called viral ideas or products to become massive hits, they almost always depend on several moments where they spread to many, many people from one source.

“That is the difference between virality in epidemiology and culture. A real virus spreads only between people. But a ‘viral’ idea can spread between broadcasts.”

Many people wanted to read Fifty Shades because it was already popular. For all of Random House’s carefully planned marketing strategy, the book’s best advertisement was its own notoriety. Many readers with little former interest in bondage, romance novels, or even books in general bought copies of the Fifty Shades trilogy because they were curious about participating in a cultural phenomenon. They wanted entry into a crowded club simply because it was crowded.

How does popularity beget more popularity? Several years after his work with global cascades, Duncan Watts and two researchers at Columbia University, Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds, designed a study to research the phenomenon of hits in music.

They created several music sites, or “worlds,” with the same forty eight songs and asked visitors to download their favorites. This way, the researchers could watch the same songs’ popularity evolve, as if in parallel universes. There was a clever wrinkle. Some websites showed viewers a ranking of the most popular tracks, but other sites had no such rankings. Although each world started with zero downloads, they evolved to be quite different. In Music World 1, the top song was “She Said” by the band Parker Theory. In Music World 4, however, that song was in tenth place.

Most important, the rankings were like steroids for hits: People who could see them were more likely to download songs that were already popular. The mere existence of rankings — the simple signal of popularity — made the biggest hits even bigger.

In a follow-up experiment, Watts and his fellow scientists got a little cheeky: They inverted the rankings. Some visitors went to music sites where the least popular song was falsely listed as number one. You can probably guess what happened. Previously ignored songs initially soared in popularity. Previously popular songs were ignored. Simply believing, even wrongly, that a song was popular made many participants more likely to download it. Rankings created superstars, even when they lied.

Some consumers buy products not because they are “better” in any way, but simply because they are popular. What they’re buying is not just a product, but also a piece of popularity itself.

Today’s cultural marketplace is a pop-culture Panopticon, where everybody can see what the world is watching, playing, and reading. In such a world, historically large audiences will inevitably cluster around a handful of mega-blockbusters, such as Fifty Shades, or, more recently, the augmented-reality game Pokémon GO. That is the lesson of Salganik, Dodds, and Watts: Cultural products will spread faster and wider when everybody can see what everybody else is doing. It suggests that the future of many hit-making markets will be fully open, radically transparent, and very, very unequal.

“What they’re buying is not just a product, but also a piece of popularity itself.”

In the final analysis, this was perhaps the key mechanism in the Fifty Shades phenomenon. Like a viral video, it was propelled by a combination of traditional broadcasters (the Today show and the New York Times), dark broadcasters (the massive fanfic cluster and Facebook groups), and ordinary sharing (readers talking to readers). Millions of people were exhilarated, maddened, and puzzled by the book, but there are thousands of books that exhilarate, madden, and puzzle.

None of them sell one hundred million copies. What separated Fifty Shades is that its notoriety became a distinct product; people who didn’t even enjoy reading still wanted to avoid being the last person to have read it.

In this way, E. L. James’s saga is both extraordinary and typical. For many cultural achievements, the art itself is not the only thing worth consuming; the experience of having seen, read, or heard the art for the purpose of being able to talk about it is its own reward. Such consumers are not just buying a product; what they’re really buying is entry into a popular conversation. Popularity is the product.

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