When considering Konnikova’s article “The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You” – a headline that is itself comprised of click-bait-esque elements – all I can think is, is this all we’ve come to? Are we really primarily concerned with whatever makes people click on and share things the most often, even if it’s total garbage? What ever happened to quality, to publishing content for reasons beyond just the potential to cast the net as wide as possible? Jonah Berger’s study is interesting and provides relevant data for any kind of online marketer or content creator in a time when the publisher without a social media campaign is outdated, but what does it really mean for publishing? Sure, following a prescribed formula for making things “interesting” and “sharable” may result in thousands of shares and “likes,” but how long is this transparent form really going to be effective? Anyone who spends any amount of time on the internet is well-acquainted with the click-bait headline, the article promising to provide emotional arousal and excitement – it’s easy to spot, with its all-caps, its listicle form, its sloppy grammar. That is, this formula, as Berger has outlined in his studies, has become so prescribed and so expected that any article using it fades away into a sea of other articles that look and sound identical to it. What once worked – and for a short time longer still will, I imagine – to grab people’s attention and attract their clicks, probably won’t work for that much longer. It has become the norm to see articles banging their heads, so to speak, just to get people to read them, and it’s no longer attractive to readers. How much longer is this formula going to suffice as a tool for story-telling structures for the general reader, and is getting thousands of clicks and shares all that we care about in publishing anymore? Is it, more or less, all just about the best seller now? Clicks equal money, but for how long will that be enough?
Call me a jaded cynic, but I’ve always imagined that content-sharing – publishing, really – was about more than just how many people you can get to “buy” your “product.” It’s about stories – and I agree with Konnikova when she questions the worth of a listicle or cat meme as a story. It’s about connecting people together, making some kind of greater change, moving readers in their everyday lives. It’s why we all got into publishing, isn’t it?
The publishing industry moves so fast, and if I were to take a wild guess, the formula for what makes content shareable won’t change too much – it hasn’t since Aristotle and his three principles of ethos, pathos, and logos – but the form of it might change, as it has over time. Eventually, people will tire of the click-bait article, the listicle, and the meme, despite their Aristotelian qualities. What the new form will look like is impossible to say, but it’s quite evident that people always have and always will be drawn to emotionally stirring stories and content. I can only hope that the publishing world doesn’t devolve into one big BuzzFeed. So maybe Konnikova was right: the six things that make stories go viral maybe do infuriate me.