Resources for “going viral”

Help journalism students understand the science behind what becomes popular on social media

By William Love

What causes something to go viral? A tweet from broadcast educator extraordinaire Don Goble the other day linked to article that highlighted some science behind it.

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You can read the article, but here’s a quick overview. A survey highlighted in the article shows that viral images share some emotional traits no matter the age or gender of the media consumer. The three characteristics identified in the article are positive feelings, emotional complexity and the element of surprise. The article is a great resource to use in a marketing and/or social media lesson.

Goble’s tweet reminded me of something I did in my journalism classes in March when everybody was asking, “What color is the dress?” (Do you remember those three days?!?) That dress and the response to it became an opportunity to show students that something going viral is not necessarily a random event.

What are some factors that lead to social media images like #TheDress or videos to go viral?

This is the question I asked students when class started. The responses varied, but not many of the answers hit on the idea that their is a science behind things going viral. This is when I showed the students a TED Talk from 2011 by Kevin Allocca called Why Videos Go Viral. Allocca is the head of culture and trends for YouTube, so as Allocca’s says, he is paid to watch YouTube video all day.

In his talk, Allocca identifies three reasons why he believes videos go viral. The traits are tastemakers, communities of participation, and unexpectedness. I will let you watch the video to understand what it all means (NOTE: there are some great videos that you will take you back), but it is fun to watch the students as they start to recognize that there are common traits behind viral hits.

The next step, of course, is to help the students understand how they can apply this information to their own work on a publication staff. In one of my classes, for example, we discussed the idea that our school is its own community with its own tastemakers that influence other students. The students actually identified who those local tastemakers are.

While I hope my students remember the other traits and don’t just focus on who is popular, at least I have them thinking about using social media strategically. I admit that I have fallen into the social media fallacy several times that goes a little like this.

Student uses social media all the time. Student will naturally make a great social media editor. Student struggles in the position because they haven’t been trained to use social media professionally.

I have no one to blame but myself for putting several students in a position where they didn’t meet my expectations for a social media editor. But now that I’m giving students tools to succeed with lessons like this, maybe the Cedar Post’s social media will go viral — in the good way!

FAVORITED is a column about journalism teaching tools and resources found on social media. If you would like to contribute to this column, contact William Love at [email protected]