The meaning of ‘sharing’ has evolved with the growth of the web, especially social media. To share something viral certainly doesn’t have the connotations it would have carried pre-internet—and certainly wouldn’t have been something to brag about. Like ‘pinning,’ ‘googling,’ and ‘liking,’ ‘sharing’ is part of the new vernacular of the digital world. In her cleverly titled article “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze and Maybe Infuriate You,” Maria Konnikova poses the question “what pushes someone not only to read a story but to pass it on?” Why do we share? What gets shared the most, and more importantly, what does what we choose to share say about us?
Konnikova begins with what I believe to be the most selfless and respectable reason for sharing: the content of the shared material simply expresses our beliefs. This suggests that there is no ulterior motive for sharing content and is a generous way of assessing the motivation behind sharing. While I do not disagree, I do not think this is the most common reason why people share. However, when looking at what people are willing to share, Konnikova argues that the reasoning behind this behaviour is much, much older than the platforms we are using now. She points to Aristotle, suggesting that we are drawn to content that appeals to our inherent principals of rhetoric: “Ethos, pathos, logos … Ethics, emotion, logic—it’s credible and worthy, it appeals to me, it makes sense.” When we deem something worth sharing with our friends or followers, not only must it appeal to our rhetorical sensibilities, it says what we want to say, without us having to actually articulate it ourselves.
Next, Konnikova addresses the emotional component of viral content. She cites a number of studies that indicate that content that evokes an extreme emotional response, be it positive or negative, is more likely to be shared. She notes that “if an article made readers extremely angry or highly anxious … they became just as likely to share it as they would a feel-good story.” We see this all the time in our newsfeeds—viral videos that contain long, emotionally-driven titles. Instead of telling us what the video is about, they tell us how we will feel once we’ve seen it. This incites emotional arousal and piques our interest, and we cannot help but spend a few minutes (which inevitably is never just a few minutes) watching videos of dogs being reunited with their owners or cute siblings with charming British accents.
While we know what kind of content is more likely to be shared, this still does not tell us what inspires an individual to share content online. Are we really sharing the cute video of a panda sneezing because we think our friends out there in the land of social media need to see this? I would argue that the true motivation behind sharing content is the same reason we have social media in the first place: to actively edit our own self image. Konnikova touches on our desire to “craft our online image,” suggesting that we share certain content because “we want to feel smart and for others to perceive us as smart and helpful.” I think this motivation is worth examining further. A common thread in our discussions surrounding social media is this idea of ‘curating a lifestyle.’ We addressed this idea in our conference at the beginning of the semester, and again in our analyses of target audiences for magazines and the use of social media as a marketing tool. Social media is appealing to the user because it allows us to express ourselves, but in a carefully manufactured or stylized way. People only see exactly what we intend for them to see, and this is largely based on what we share to our friends and followers.
Our sharing channels are worth examining as well. Most people have more than one form of social media, which increases our means of sharing exponentially. With Facebook alone, we have the capacity to share content on a number of platforms; we can share a video privately, publicly, with certain friends, within a group, with a select individual…the options go on. So, how do we decide? What makes us share content publicly instead of privately? Konnikova uses the term “social currency” to describe this practice of sharing content as a demonstration of belonging to the “insider culture” built in to online communities. By sharing something, we are able to express that we are part of a knowledge collective. We are informed, interesting, unique, or at least we aspire to be, and if people think we are, well then, we must be.