Saturday, August 23, 2014

Reflections: Contagious: Why Things Catch On

When it comes to the digital frontier and those "thinkers" who inhabit it, they all want to know how to get their idea noticed.  To be creator of a viral video, article, meme, or whatever else, is a badge of honor in the information age.  Jonah Berger claims in his book, Contagious, to have decoded the patterns and elements of what makes something viral.  He's got them all listed out, but is it convincing?

Answer: maybe.  Contagious does do more than other books with a similar theme, like Gladwell's The Tipping Point, by going beyond how something becomes viral to why something becomes viral.  Having dabbled with social media and trying to get an idea to take off (I do run an online book club after all), I have been as befuddled as many others as to why some posts are popular and others are duds.  Furthermore, there is a general fascination with viral content online.  (Sites like The Daily Beast track and list the most viral videos each week).  Jonah Berger's attempt to give definitive reasons for why something becomes viral is very ambitious, but I'm not particularly convinced he found any secret sauce.

Berger relies a lot on social research, which is difficult to get right and burdened with innumerable variables.  The book does a nice job of setting up each of his principles with a story and then provides evidence to support Berger's theories.  It's interesting enough to read and ponder, after all he may be right, but there was nothing in the book which led me to any kind of "Aha!" moment.  It was all pretty standard in its approach.

One nice thing about Berger's book is that it highlights very ordinary people who were able to create something, even if it was a video about preparing corn, that found an incredibly large audience.  It's a great reminder how small our world can really be.  It also illustrates how the internet has leveled the playing field in many ways.  There are internet celebrities, even if it was temporary, who gained exposure and attention that many corporations are willing to pay millions for.  We live in a fascinating age.

Contagious is readable, even enjoyable, but I didn't find anything in it that would give someone a perfect recipe for creating viral content.  In my mind, sometimes people just get lucky.  In a way, a little mystery is fun because then you truly never know if you'll become an internet celebrity. 

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Too Big to Know
Reflections: Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches

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