If you've been online at all recently, you probably saw the sweet, hilarious video of the well meaning Korea expert whose interview with the BBC was memorably crashed by his two adorable kids. (If not, go take a look. It'll brighten your day.) It's hard to miss because it is absolutely everywhere.

But here's a question for you: in a sea of clips of kids doing funny things, what caused this particular video to become an instant worldwide phenomenon? Why did this one interview fail among all the world's interview fails go viral?

When something goes viral, it can feel magical. Sure, laying the groundwork by promoting your content, building a following, and studying past successes definitely helps, but as anyone who has ever tried to make something compulsively shareable can tell you, at the end of the day, it's always feels like kind of a crap shoot.

But now research is chipping away at that mystery by peering into people's brains to see what's going on when they decide what to share. Soon, scientists hope, they'll be able to predict what's about to go viral by looking at a brain scan. In the meantime, they're learning much more about the process of what makes something so shareable.

The neuroscience of virality

To figure out what is happening in our heads when we pass along a funny video or awe-inspiring article to our friends, a team from a neuroscience research lab at the University of Pennsylvania stuck participants in an fMRI machine and recorded their brain activity while they looked at headlines and abstracts of 80 New York Times articles on health and fitness.

Each participant told the researchers how likely they were to share a particular article and also simply read it themselves. The scientists also had access to data on how frequently the articles were recommended in real life. By examining all this information together the team came to an interesting conclusion -- people use a two-pronged process to decide what to share.

You are what you share.

Regardless of whether a subject was interested in reading an article or sharing it, two distinct brain sections were active -- one involved in processing social relationships and another in developing our own self-image. This suggests that the decision to engage with an article is based both on how that article will reflect on you (What does this article say about me?) and on recipients' interest (Will my friends enjoy it?).

"People are interested in reading or sharing content that connects to their own experiences, or to their sense of who they are or who they want to be. They share things that might improve their relationships, make them look smart or empathic or cast them in a positive light," senior author Emily Falk, said summing up the results.

This characteristic double activation could potentially be used to predict what people will share based on a brain scan. But it also offers a more practical lesson for those hoping to ignite a viral sensation. Sharing is a way to shape identity as much as it is a way to inform or entertain friends. Compulsively shareable content is usually a flattering mirror.

That video of the kids crashing the Skype interview, for instance, advertises your own experience of work-life balance struggles and a healthy appreciation of the absurdities of life with young children. Posting inspirational quotes marks you as a striver. Snarky wine-related memes in your feed demonstrate you're a clear-eyed realist in a world of inauthentic try-hards, etc.

For marketers, this suggest that until you can manage to install an fMRI machine in your office, if you want to know whether something will go viral, you'd do well to ask yourself a straightforward question: What does this content suggest about the sharer, and how many people want to project themselves that way?

Published on: Mar 17, 2017