What Makes Something Go Viral?

Remember the way high school gossip traveled? You heard about someone breaking up with his girlfriend, or a girl that went too far with a guy, or someone who cheated on a test. Dirty little secrets whispered with a giggle behind a hand, eyes darting to see who’s coming your way down the echoing hallway.

We grow up, but we don’t stop wanting in on the gossip. Only now, we have easier ways to spread the word, thanks to social media.

We can use it for good, or we can use it for evil. We can issue cries for help and look-at-me bragging and put our kids on photographic pedestals. We compete, often unknowingly, with each other by showing how great we are, how happy, how much in love, how long-married, how terrific at parenting, how multi-talented and renaissance.

But for something to go viral, to really catch on and catch a big wave that will take it far and wide across the Internet, it has to touch the heartstrings. Not be boastful, but be meaningful, vulnerable and true.

The other day I heard an interview with Liza Long, author of a new book on parenting a child with mental illness. Her book contract, and her national voice, got its start after she published a blog inspired by the Sandy Hook shooting. Its title: “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”

Imagine the bravery it took to write about herself identifying with the deceased mother of the crazy shooter in that awful tragedy. Why do it? Not for her son – or perhaps, exactly for her son.

If she speaks out, and someone pays attention, perhaps the way mentally ill children are treated will change. That’s the exact reason to put yourself on the line and take a chance. And that vulnerability is exactly what’s needed to go viral.

Just recently, a video of a woman and her Alzheimer’s-addled mother went viral. Here it is.

The poignance, the sweetness, the brevity – they’re laughing, and loving. What made that video go viral?

It was Aristotle, believe it or not, who predicted what factors make something ripe for going viral. “Ethics, emotion, logic – it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to you, it makes sense.” (This came from a great New Yorker article on how something goes viral.)

Sometimes, it’s stupidity, like that horrifying picture of the woman with too much eye shadow in a mug shot. (Here it is.)

Here’s what I think: we want to be inspired. Uplifted. Motivated to do good. We want to surround ourselves with incredible people and ideas. We want to make a difference in the world. And if we’re not making a difference in the world, we want to jump on the wagon of someone, or something, that is.

This life isn’t about being mediocre. It’s about rising to challenges and finding inspiration. A what-am-I-here-for internal conversation. An end-days reckoning.

Laying down the gauntlet and picking up the cause. Something goes viral when it tugs at the heart (or is utterly ridiculous). The ridiculous ones fade away; the meaningful ones never do.

Think of the recent ALS Ice Bucket Challenges. It’s ridiculous behavior (pouring a bucket of ice water over your head) for an incredible cause (raising money to eradicate ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). I know people who have died from it. There is no cure, and it’s an awful downward slide.

People wanted in on the action – to be popular enough, if you will, to be nominated. (Peer pressure’s positive side.) Celebrities and politicians got in on the action. For the marketing folks at the ALS Association, it was brilliant. Everyday folks and well-known public figures alike came together to make a difference.

That is the very definition of community. It happens in my neighborhood when an unexpected flood overtakes every house and puts people and cherished memories in jeopardy. And it happens with the stroke of a mouse or the touch of a keypad online, where we can sit alone behind the computer screen but feel Part of Something just for sharing what we know.

Going viral is our way of staying connected. Of building meaningful lives. Of making the world a better place.

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