It is only recently, with the rise of internet content, that the term 'viral' has gone, well, viral. But the phenomenon of social pandemics - ideas, products, and behaviors that catch on and spread quickly and widely - has probably been around as long as society itself, which says a lot about our psychology and how we interact. Understanding how social pandemics work also has great practical value: when content goes viral, the effect on behavior can also have a big impact on the bottom line. This is no less true for art museums.
All this is on my mind after reading Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger of The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Last week I had an opportunity to hear Mr. Berger speak. Here is my take away.
Berger's research notes that there are six main factors that help explain social pandemics. They are 1. Social Currency; 2. Triggers; 3. Emotion; 4. Public; 5. Practical Value; and 6. Stories.
"Social currency" refers to how good or important something makes us look for sharing it. We want to look bright, funny, entertaining, knowledgeable, and prestigious in the eyes of others; therefore, we are more likely to mention those things that make us appear so. However, ideas, products, and even behaviors can all be manipulated to achieve this effect. For example, Berger notes that a blender may not appear so interesting, but highlighting just how powerful it is by posting a video of said blender destroying an iPhone can make it appear a whole lot more interesting - and hence more worthy of sharing.
Berger defines "triggers" as stimuli in the environment that are associated with, and remind us of, other items. For example, Berger points out that peanut butter is highly associated with jelly, and so the mention of the former often "triggers" the thought of the latter. Ideas, products, and behaviors that are naturally associated with common triggers are more likely to be brought to mind, thus increasing the chances that they will be both talked about and influence our behavior, and hence spread further. Natural associations often work best; however, associations between unrelated items can also be established through clever advertising campaigns or even social responses to these campaigns.
If you have emailed some infuriating article to your friends, or clicked "Like" on the adorable photos of a Facebook friend's kids, then you understand the role of emotion in social pandemics. Items that evoke highly arousing emotions, both positive and negative, such as awe, excitement, anger and anxiety, are more likely to be shared-and therefore more likely to spread widely.
The idea of something being "public" seems at first an obvious factor: things that are highly public and visible are more likely to be talked about and imitated than those that are more private. But Berger's insight is about the ways in which private activities emerge into the public sphere, and then become widely shared and ultimately viral. For example, donating to a charity tends to be a private choice. However, the Movember movement in support of curing colon cancer - featuring the highly conspicuous moustache - managed to bring charitable support into the public sphere, where it attracted new donors and wide support.
"Practical value" refers to the fact that people like to be helpful to others, and so anything that is particularly useful is more likely to be shared. This helps explain why so many articles on health and education matters are so widely shared, and also why an otherwise nondescript video about shucking corn went viral on YouTube.
Finally, Berger identifies "stories" as another crucial element, referring to the fact that people tend to enjoy telling and hearing stories. Ideas, products, and behaviors that are wrapped in narratives - and especially compelling narratives - are more likely to be shared than those that are just presented as information. The Dove 'Evolution' commercial is good examples of products being wrapped in a compelling narratives, one that makes us want to pay attention and learn the story.
So what does this mean for museums? Our members surely will not be making exhibition and programming decisions just based on their viral marketability. But understanding the underlying elements can help us take better advantage of these opportunities when they present themselves - or find communications approaches that can suss out these gems from within our activities, and help to market them. The success of MoMA's "Rain Room" demonstrates this point, contrasting two things we don't usually think of together (an example of Berger's "triggers") while also tapping into the social currency around a highly participatory installation. Similarly, LACMA created a compelling narrative around moving a 340-ton, two-story tall boulder from a quarry to the museum for Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass." The boulder's eleven-day, 105-mile journey went viral based in large part on the "story" factor. And almost all of our members have seen the waves of Facebook "Likes" that come in after a successful program or new post, demonstrating in a smaller way the viral impact of good content.