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The day the kittens went viral.

Charting the eruption of an internet project.

Yesterday was a big day. Not in the sense of winning the lottery, the pools or even a big juicy contract — but we’ll remember October 1st 2013 as the day the got 14,000 unique visitors.

The idea for Better Than Kittens started out as a joke comment about another idea we had about creating a tool that bypassed the artificial situations created by market research groups. The basic idea being that nobody really cognitively processes their thoughts about brands or designs as much as they do in a situation specifically focused on it, so are the results that come out of market research really that valid? I don’t remember walking down the supermarket aisle, being confronted with a new brand and thinking “Hmmm, what are all the positive and negative connotations of this brand name; what do the colours signify to me; if I had to choose an actor to represent this brand, who would it be?” — it just doesn’t happen in the real world.

So the idea was to create an online tool that designers could use to show their brand designs, without getting people to consciously process them. All very nice and worthy, but then the mad idea popped up of maybe giving designs the ultimate test — kittens.

We laughed and laughed at the idea — and then we thought, why not?

So, we put aside two days and Caden and myself worked through how it could work, the style and how it could be constructed. Caden wanted to test some new coding frameworks but I wanted to see if we could see how something went viral. I had just finished reading ‘Positive Linking’ by Paul Ormerod where he puts forward the idea of how understanding network effects can help you understand when something will go viral or not. My emotional brain had already made up its mind that we were going to create Better Than Kittens, but now my rational brain had also justified it as some kind of experiment — so off we went.

Two days later and Better Than Kittens was working and online, now we just needed to get people using it.

Our initial approach was to plough personal networks, so we put the link on Facebook and emailed designer friends. A handful of people put their work up (with a little poking from us) and they started to tweet and share links to the site. In the first week of being online, this generated 501 unique visitors to the site and 8 people contributing designs (mostly more than one each) — nothing groundbreaking, but we were happy with the initial interest.

We wondered if trying to hit larger networks would help. We tweeted the major design papers and networks directly, this boiled down to begging for a retweet. Nothing happened. None of them picked up on it and the visitor rate or contribution rate didn’t increase. In fact, over the next six weeks the visitor rate went down to just 86 and no new people uploading designs.

On the morning of October 1, Scoutzie tweeted this:

We spotted it and felt the comparing nature of the tweet was suitable for a comment:

Scoutzie, being the friendly people they are, saw the funny side and replied:

And that set the ball rolling. It generated multiple visits and multiple retweets; this alerted @idiot who tweeted the link which generated 717 visits; which in turn got @designernewsbot and @netmag to tweet it and feature on their sites. More people tweeted out to their networks and this grew throughout the day with as many as 320 people viewing the site at once and adding up to 13,877 unique visits for the day.

Then this morning, The Verge Magazine featured it on their homepage which has sent the figures for day 2 spiralling with 10,000 people visiting the site by midday GMT (2 October).

Looking back through Paul Ormerod’s book, the stats are pointing towards this being an example of a scale-free network showing Lazarfield’s two-step flow of communication. I heartily recommend reading Positive Linking for a much more thorough explanation but basically, it states that the hubs of the network, the agents with large numbers of connections, exercise a strong influence simply because they have so many connections. They don’t need to be especially knowledgeable or persuasive; they just know a lot of people. So whilst Scoutzie (1,755 Twitter followers) started the ball rolling it was @idiot (20,367 Twitter followers) who got the network going. When .Net Magazine tweeted their 54,201 followers and The Verge to their 294,775 the network erupted.

Sorry for getting all academic, but I find it fascinating. In his book, Ormerod quotes from Friedrich Hayek’s 1949 essay ‘The Intellectuals and Socialism’, where he attributes how ideas come to a dominant position in market economies to ‘intellectuals’. He uses the term ‘intellectual’ not as an original thinker but as ‘professional second-hand dealers in ideas.’ This struck a chord as we look through the many people tweeting a link to Better Than Kittens very few add anything new but they want be the one to share the link with their own networks.

We have also been interested in the ratio of people looking at the site to the people uploading their designs. Many people have heard of the 1% rule, or the 1-9-90 rule of internet participation so we looked through our kitten-stats to see if this held true. In short, it’s almost bang-on. Taking the first-day figures, 13,877 people visited the site and 128 people contributed designs (or 0.922%).

And that’s the journey so far. I’m not going to attempt a ‘so what have we learnt here?’ style conclusion as it’s only day two of it taking off and I want to look into the stats a little more thoroughly and I’ll post updates on Twitter.

A psychologist and designer with a passion for finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves.

A psychologist and designer with a passion for finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves.