Why Do Things Go Viral? To Make a Social Connection

It isn’t every day that a faculty panel about why things go viral kicks off with a presenter who has already become a meme, but in College Park Scholars—and for Science and Global Change Program Director Thomas Holtz, a celebrity within paleontology spheres—that’s par for the course. In late February, students from across Scholars gathered for a panel discussion, “Memes and Other Mysteries: How and Why Stuff Goes Viral.” The event was part of Scholars’ annual theme programming, “Going Viral.”

The “stuff” alluded to in the event title ran the gamut from the K-Pop song, “Gangnam Style,” to Nike ads, protest signs and, of course, gifs. Though the four panelists approached the topic from a variety of perspectives, one message was consistent throughout the evening: Even if no one is exactly able to pinpoint just why something goes viral, everyone from businesses to YouTubers to, yes, college professors, hopes that their content will.

Over the course of the evening, Holtz and fellow panelists Nicole Mogul, assistant director of the Science, Technology and Society Scholars program; Mark Wellman, director, Business, Society and the Economy Scholars; and Greg Metcalf, lecturer on 20th century art and film in the College of Arts & Humanities’ department of art history, engaged students with viral videos, scientific and semiotic explanations, literature around social media and the “filters” the social media creates, and more. Each presenter highlighted a different element of not only the ways that things can go viral, but also the various reasons why that might happen, for better or for worse. Holtz framed the discussion by providing Richard Dawkins’ definition of a meme as “units of cultural transmission.” Metcalf built on this, noting that  the viral success of “Gangnam Style,” for instance, can be attributed to any—or a combination—of the following: viewers thinking pop music is stupid (or thinking it’s wonderful); having a total absence of cool (or being “too” cool); or perhaps simply enjoying the repetitive phrases and simple dance moves. The sheer number of wedding videos featuring the song seems to support all of these claims.

Wellman, for his part, asked students to share their various preferred social media platforms, before exploring the ways in which these various platforms can play a role in successful—or unsuccessful—marketing campaigns. He shared videos from both social media influencers and businesses with successful advertising campaigns that capitalized on making human connections.

Communities, connections

Memes, then, at their core are about forming communities and connections, often through humor or inside jokes. These jokes are not static, however. Holtz showed students how memes have evolved online over the past few years, from image macros (usually just text on picture) to highly modifiable jokes and reactions, thus moving beyond the idea that memes are always replicated identically.

Whatever form a meme takes, it can be used to signal membership in a group defined by a shared set of beliefs or values. In some cases, a meme can help demonstrate rejection of a group or its values. Mogul underscored the latter possibility when she challenged students to assess the “moral fuel” of a variety of racially charged signs and posts, such as from the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last summer, that have gone viral.

From a marketing perspective, Wellman noted that virality is highly desirable. Success in this instance is measured in numbers of views and shares of a video or ad. But as a student in the audience noted during the post-presentation Q&A, these views and shares can be driven by questionable algorithms and data being communicated. Indeed, Mogul noted “bad actors” may well use their 15 minutes of Internet fame to share conspiracy theories or incorrect information.

Next month, Scholars will continue that very discussion with “Muddied Waters: Online Disinformation During Crisis Events” on April 9. The lecture and discussion will be led by Kate Starbird, assistant professor at the University of Washington and an expert in how information spreads following a crisis event. She will explore how sites like Twitter allow posts and hashtags to “go viral”—but often with little control over the quality of that information. These “bad actors” and “truthers” then end up at the top of YouTube’s recommendation list or Facebook’s video sites. Starbird will break down why and how such theories spread after a crisis.



About the author:

Dr. Jess Krenek earned her PhD in 2017 from the University of Maryland, and part of her dissertation focused on building community and connection through social media sites. She serves as the administrative coordinator for College Park Scholars, where she assists the executive director and the Central staff in planning, management, and assessment of activities and projects, including annual theme planning. Krenek moderated the panel discussion, “Memes and Other Mysteries: How and Why Stuff Goes Viral.”


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