Social media and why we share Internet content

Whatever free time I had in the first week or so of the new year, which wasn’t much considering it coincided with the culmination of college football’s season (and that, for me, means many hours working), I spent it rummaging through the Internet aisle of those “Best of” and “The Year of” posts.

The Best Stories of 2013. The Year of Viral Internet Content. The Year Where Less Will Become More (I still don’t know what that means). You know, those types of things.

I enjoy those posts. They, themselves, encourage self-review, and they’re published at a time of year that fosters reflection. They’re cliché, sure, but actual value exists within many of them, which is more than most Internet posts can claim.

And so reading through them and thinking back on 2013 and ahead to 2014, I tried to clarify what would be 2014’s single most-interesting question regarding digital media at this particular time in our industry, and what I settled on is this:

Why do people share Internet content?

This isn’t the only interesting question at the outset of a new year, but it ranked first for me. It’s also a dangerous one.

Esquire’s Luke O’Neil brilliantly captured the dangers of media’s digital medium in his year-end piece titled, “The Year We Broke The Internet.”

The Web is an engine that runs on viral fuel, and digital media, in many respects, has become a carnivore that devours itself. It doesn’t much matter the quality or processes indulged for providing this fuel, there’s just a constant and insatiable hunger for more meat.

We sift for traffic in any realm it may reside, knowing the big numbers spring from content that awakens the echoes of Twitter and Facebook. In the digital game, social now trumps search in ways we’re still struggling to define. It’s almost scary how much our lives are becoming operable through a mobile screen, a habit that businesses, all of them, will look to feast upon in 2014.

There are ghastly examples of our digital culture exploiting itself – the term “click bait” is a sort of catchall term for this – but not everything is nefarious.

The tricky thing, I think, is how thin the line has become between “click bait” and “cool content that lots of people click on and share.” The latter remains the goal for every digital media outlet everyday. And if you care about serving readers rather than cheating them, the mission becomes: How do we consistently create shareable content while also clearing a certain bar of quality? In other words, how do we create more worthwhile cool stuff and less cheap, social flotsam?

It’s difficult, but it’s also fascinating. A path to those answers begins at our primary question: Why do people share?

There’s a certain mystery to it – there’s nothing more annoying than a well-reported and well-produced piece gaining little traction while “10 things not to say on a first date” is constantly reproduced around the Internet without diminishing returns – but there’s also most certainly an answer.

I found this Q&A with BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, in which he discusses social content, to be terrific and scratch the surface of this topic. Here’s one insightful bit:

What we’ve found is that content spreads on different networks for different reasons. There are underlying human dynamics for social content. There are reasons why people share. But certain platforms are better for certain types of sharing. Twitter is very fast. [It’s] great for things like live television, breaking news and real-time events. Twitter is also much better for Internet-based content.

On Facebook, because people use it as their actual network of people that they’re friends with in real life – you have friends from college, you have friends from high school, you have friends from work, you have a diverse range of people that you’re connected to – you don’t really want to share things that only a very small subset of people would be interested in …

So Facebook is much more tied to broad human emotion and things that everyone can relate to and things that connect people with the people in their lives. It’s not so much about the information in the content; it’s about how that content allows you to connect with other people in your life.

Sara Critchfield, the editorial director of Upworthy, takes the idea of emotion even further and instructs her content curators to use it as a primary guide for determining what content to post.

Of course, Upworthy, a viral content-monger of sorts, represents some of the dangers that O’Neil describes in his Esquire piece, namely the repurposing and repackaging of content solely to make something viral.

But I do think, at its best, Upworthy is meaningful and progressive.

It’s ahead of many in figuring out the “human dynamics,” as Peretti described it, of why people share digital content. It’s a site that’s quickly moved ahead in the race to understand the emotional reactions specific content generates among users and then makes its editorial decisions off that information.

I’m not a fan of many of the ways certain sites produce viral content, but I’m not nearly interested in discussing that as I am in trying to understand the elusive science behind quality (and successful) digital content.

Some characteristics that induce sharing seem to be inherent in unfailing viral monsters – “Cute animals in the snow,” “The most amazing baby ever,” “Ten signs your marriage is failing,” etc.

We can republish those things every other month and they will do fantastic traffic and, no, there’s nothing to be proud of there. But have you ever wondered why they are viral monsters? Why they are shared?

It’s the most interesting question, to me, currently regarding digital media.

The challenge in the content business then becomes extracting those shareable characteristics – and there are many examples, not just those cookie-cutters listed above — and applying them to niche content in a meaningful and quality way.

Is there something to learn from those viral monsters if you’re a political reporter or a food blogger or a tech editor or a baseball writer or anyone else working in content?

I think so. There’s a human gene in all of that.

Figuring out what works for a niche, what makes an audience Tweet and go to Facebook to share, is becoming only more crucial.

Eleven months from now, “The Year We Figured Out Social Media” may even be the title of a popular piece.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com.

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