In a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, titled What Makes Online Content Viral?, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman analysed about 7000 New York Times articles to examine which articles made it to “the most e-mailed” list. The conclusion of the research was the emotional intensity evoked by the articles was a major factor in determining their virality. Thus a change in the article characteristic by one standard deviation causes the following changes in the probability of making it to the most e-mailed list:
The articles have higher virality (more shared) if they stir up emotions. Some emotions have higher impact than others, but the one outstanding aspect is that anger and awe have a higher influence than the practical value or the interest of the article. The research shows that the low-arousal emotions (like sadness) dampen our enthusiasm for sharing. This is also interesting. My reading into this is that sadness has lower social value and it is not looked upon favourably by our peers. I dare say this is in line with behaviour linked to depression when people tend to suffer in silence.
Do we have the same appetite for sharing in other social situations, such as Facebook or Twitter?
Ben Elowitz wrote an interesting post on his blog, where he shared (!) a few thoughts about emotions that drive sharing. He analysed the Most Shared Articles on Facebook in 2011 and discovered that the emotional drivers have a different pattern of influence on. Number one factor is emotionality at 23%, followed by negativity (18%), interest (15%), surprise (13%) and positivity (13%). The practical value is way down to 3%!
Sure, the emotional patterns differ from one sharing environment to another, but clearly sharing is an emotional act. As Berger and Milkman noted in What Makes Online Content Viral?, “Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal”. I guess spiritual/intellectual emotions would count as low-arousal – there is not one word about that in that study.
Harvard Business Review published research on the same topic. In The New Science of Viral Ads, Tales Teixeira describes five ways of increasing the chances of people sharing video ads:
- Utilise brand pulsing: don’t put your logo straight in the middle, but show it only from time to time. This increases the chance of sharing by 20%
- Open with joy: right at the opening do something that causes positive, joyful reaction. This prevents boredom.
- Create a roller coaster: keep coming up with surprises and joyful experiences: this prevents the drop in interest
- Surprise but not shock: if the shock is negative, embarrassing or venturing into taboo territories, people may feel inhibited about sharing
- Use all of the above: joyful opening, show the brand here and there, keep people hooked, don’t shock.
The methods of measuring the emotion, the type of sharing medium and the type of content are different, but the role of the emotion in the decision to share something is undeniable
This may explain why sharing in formal circumstances doesn’t work. When you get the emotion out of the content, sharing is not that attractive, lacking the virality we see in informal social situations. By contrary, as the Berger and Milkman’s research shows, the low-arousal emotions have an inhibiting factor.
We share more when we feel that emotional impulse in the content. However, emotion is involved not only before but also in the act of sharing. What do people feel when they share? Unfortunately the research is mostly focused on the correlation between the emotion triggered by the content and the decision to share ignoring the emotion of sharing.
Emotions such as feeling appreciated, feeling good about being funny, intellectual, practical or artistic, getting rewarding feedback, feeling social as opposed to isolated, feeling contributing to an important cause, being the best in some ranking system, all of these contribute to making people want to share the content. These emotions have to do with our character, and our character and experience have to do with our choice of environment for communication.
Our sharing behaviour must be influenced also by the kind of environment we use and the type of human network we are part of. For example, people are never going to share funny videos on LinkedIn. Why because there is an expectation you need to look “professional” there. You can’t take the risk of broadcasting on LinkedIn a prank video of the Pope dancing with Madonna at Mardi Gras festival even if you think is really funny. You will be frowned upon by all the HR departments.
This is why I think we should be looking on not only what makes the content viral, which is a marketing problem, but also about what makes people share, which is a social communication problem. Formal network environments miss the opportunity to engage and get people become more creative, curious and motivated because they lack of emotion, inhibiting the social communication.
As an example, SharePoint is a very good product, but it is too formal, too boring to capture the imagination of people making the information sharing less effective. The SharePoint 2010 My Profile feature is a typical corporate “search to find information” strategy. Even the voice describing the features is emotionless. The product design is all about information, fields, tags, skills and projects. There is very little about socio-emotional features, a comprehensive anti how to make information viral strategy. I dare challenge you to listen to that video describing My Profile feature until the end of it. If, as research shows, people are far more likely to share in a state of arousal, this sleep inducing video, has close to zero chance of being share. Oh, except for me. I just did it! I guess we can put this in the category “interest” or “practical value” basket. Anyway, it needs to add a socio-emotional dimension to it to really become an effective information sharing tool; let’s say a combination of Facebook/Google Plus and SharePoint would do much better.
Social games are derided by some as being too superficial, something for de-stress therapy in the weekend. But modern games are really getting better at engaging our internal emotions which defines us who we are. Gamifying the sharing experience works because it adds emotional value to the act of sharing. If the sharing environment adds features that tap into these emotions such as giving rewards, showing your approval/disapproval for shared content, follow and be followed, all these increase the chances content will be shared. This could mean that specialised social networks will spread and gradually replace the formal sharing environments and put more colour into our virtual office lives.
The term cognitive refers to mental processes such as judgement, reason, memory and perception. These are processes that alter the brain cognitive structures, which in effect are neural patterns representing information retained in the long term memory. The study of these activities is very complex and it is being shared by multiple disciplines that adopt a variety of approaches in describing what is going on in there: physiology, psychology, neuroscience, etc. However, we could say in a nutshell that cognitive processes are calculations, crunching information bits that flow into the brain system through various sensorial channels.
We mostly associate cognitive processes with thinking in a conscious state, but they can occur in other states. The keyword here is “thinking”. In computer speak, that is the running of an algorithm, the execution of program routines that break down the input data into components to assemble a response.
Computer systems do exactly the same thing in their silicon world, with one little important difference: all their programming routines are created by humans. Their thinking is a result of our thinking, which is an entirely rational cognitive process. Sure, we can get emotional in our programming, but in the end the lines of code must obey very dry syntax rules. No matter how hard we try, we can only code software that fakes emotion very well at best, but never software that is actually emotional.
In my mind, this is why artificial intelligence will never match our intelligence: it lacks emotional capability. Emotion is what drives us. Emotion is our most precious attribute that allows us to create something from nothing (almost). We don’t know how emotion really works, but you have a sense that if cognition is a calculation on which reason is based, emotion must be a super-calculation that takes place at deeper and inaccessible levels from which inspiration and unexpected creativity is drawn from.
But, this is a big BUT: is it possible that when you have billions of computers linked through a network, when their state change at huge scale as result of their rapid interaction and massive parallel sensorial input, to have waves of computation patterns forming unexpectedly, creating a significant response that never existed before and that was never programmed to occur, which will change the global distributed long-term memory in ways that will change their future behaviour? That is learning and creating emotionally, a capability specific to living systems.
I suspect that is already occurring, but we just don’t see it clearly yet. If we would take a closer look at the financial trading systems as they are networked around the world, maybe we see a glimpse of that. The quant trading systems that have been programs to crunch huge chunks of market information and detect human psychological patterns could display such “emotional” behaviour. I am not referring to them being programmed to behave emotionally, because they don’t for the reason I mentioned above, but because as they are networked at a massive scale receiving large amounts of input data, they could display “emotion”. I suspect the “glitch” that caused almost 1000 points drop in Dow Jones Industrial Average in May 2010 was in fact an “emotional” behaviour of these networked systems (it was not a bug).
That computational ability is a type of artificial intelligence indistinguishable from the natural. This would pass an imaginary Turing test with flying colours..
PS: Financial markets are one of the most networked systems at a global scale. There is more to come, see here (NYT, 2011)and here (CBS report). Also, social networks such as Facebook will likely display, if not already do, independent intelligent behaviour.
Brilliant article by David Brooks from The New York Times, March 7 2011.
David Brooks says that in essence there are two sides of our mind: rational and emotional. The first one is mainly driven by our conscious while the second is seeded deeply into our subconscious.
There is much more to us than mere logical reason. Efforts to improve our humanity fail because they are limited to treating the rational issues, failing to see the importance of emotions. This is why, David Brooks says, The British Enlightenment was more accurate than the French Enlightenment by focusing on the social aspects in our lives as a really defining trait, as opposed to the rational, logic aspect.
Interesting comment on the increasing importance of social aspect, making old skills becoming less relevant. The industrial era created suitable measurements of skills such as IQ, school degrees and professional skills. Today, there are other skills that are becoming vital and they are more subtle and refuse to me measured by rigid methods, but by outcomes that become evident in time. David lists the following skills as an example:
Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.
Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.
Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.
Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.
Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.
This is indeed a glimpse of a new humanity. This needs a different form of government, new policy makers, new principles for education and environmental design and decision making in general. The way elections are conducted today is an anachronism because the conversation is always limited to managing performance using the old measures and the notion of broad social needs are ignored. The focus of the discussion is superficial and the solutions are outdated. We need a new system focused on social values not narrow profits and where the participation is more direct and broader from a social perspective.