Culture

What makes a video go viral -- by the people who claim they do it

A survey examines why people share videos and contribute to making them go viral. Some claim to share them as a passive-aggressive act.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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Remember "David After The Dentist"? Could its hundreds of millions of views have been predicted? Booba1234/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Every day, people stare at their computers and try to force their work onto others. (You're welcome.)

There must, though, be a certain trick, a magical algorithmic formula to making a video go viral. When I think of all the producers in Hollywood who claim to know all the vital ingredients to make a movie or a TV show a hit, and then watch the vast majority go splat, I fear the truth is that no one knows anything.

Still, viral video experts have to be seen to be experts. Here, then, is some research that asked real people, and millennials in particular, why they share certain videos and not others.

While 69 percent of Americans said in a recent Harris Poll due to be released Tuesday that they share videos online, only 57 percent said they can identify a viral video when they see it. But millennials, those people aged between 20 and 35, apparently see things slightly different. You may be prostrate for a while when you hear that 78 percent of them claim to be viral video experts, according to the online survey, which was sponsored by Mode Media.

But what is the criteria for a video to go viral? It has to be funny, according to 40 percent of the survey's respondents. There's a revelation. Apparently, comedy is king as 55 percent of millennials insist on laughter before sharing.

Millennials, though, are a curious bunch. Much more than the general population, they're sure a video will go viral if they see their friends sharing it (45 percent) and if they see a celebrity sharing it (37 percent).

A strange aspect, though, is that 25 percent of these American respondents admitted that they shared certain videos in order to communicate with passive-aggression, for example to express their political views or even religious beliefs.

What is odd is that these passive-aggressive sharers seem to know little about their friends, real or virtual. The very same poll, which surveyed 3,027 adults aged 18 and older between October 6 and 8, showed that only 2 percent of people would even dream of taking political action when they see a video.

Mode Media claims to be the eighth largest media property in the US and insists it has professional curators and proprietary technology that can drive the right video all over the galaxy.

Opinions and, indeed, research vary as to what really makes a video go viral. A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review suggested there were complexities and that humor is something very hard to quantify. Using numbers from the video ad-tech company Unity, this research suggested there was a psychological motivation (how the video makes you feel) and a social motivation (the thing that makes you want to share it).

Warmth and happiness were, at least in this study, far more important ingredients than hilarity.

But can anyone truly know when a video will go viral? Perhaps in our robotic future we will all react like machines or even be machines. Perhaps we will all be stimulated, persuaded, cajoled and controlled by machines.

Currently, I prefer to believe that real knowledge is scarce. In this Mode Media survey, the human sharers insisted that humor, animal content and anything featuring kids were high on their criteria of viral indicators.

How many movies and TV shows get made, though, that feature kids, animals and (alleged) humor and bomb spectacularly?

Too many techie types strive for a world in which everything is predictable and therefore every product is a success.

I fear -- and rejoice a little -- there may still be a long way to go before that happens.