I spend more time than most (and some would argue mentally healthy) viewing virally-charged social content. As a front-end developer at BuzzFeed.com “putting together a new model for Internet journalism”, I work off of a local database crammed full of millions (yes millions) of cats, awkward situations, bears in awkward situations, science facts, corgies, a little too much Ryan Gosling, and all manner of oddities and amazingness. I discovered early in my tenure that refreshing this database was a procrastination time-bomb, but also that the tech team here is probably the most productive and happiest because we laugh and discuss these posts all day while cranking out code (it’s scientifically proven!).
With enough viral content under my belt to fill all the mason jars in a hipster’s home, it is inevitable to think about what these posts and my “wasted time” means. Why do I care? Why do I share?
There have been many attempts at describing the unique quality of virality (machine learning patterns, ability to generate discussion, igniting an emotional response, social approval), but a recent article (BuzzFeed, of course) on lucid dreaming sparked a revelation in my understanding of what all the fuss is about. As Jung noted, all dream images reveal something about yourself and humanity through the subjective lens of your prior experiences. It occurred to me that what we call viral content is really just a hyper-effective mechanism to expand that lens, and therefore test that we’re not dreaming. Bear with me here.
I propose that what gives us pleasure from these posts (and makes us want to share them) is that they represent or uncover something pleasurable that we could never have conceived with our own minds. By expanding our understanding of reality in a meaningful way, we are transformed, and naturally desire to share that experience with others. Here are some examples: After viewing AMC’s Walking Dead and a few other flicks, it easy to imagine those half-dead bundle of joys, and therefore it wouldn’t be a quality test in a dream to see a Zombie and think we’re awake. Accordingly, just imagine the reaction of sending a photo of a Zombie to a friend and saying ‘You’ve got to check this out, crazy OMG — It’s dead, BUT ALIVE!’. However, after viewing a post on Peanut Zombies, I’m struck that I could never have imagined something so pleasurably creative in so many ways. Proof I’m not dreaming, consciousness expanded, will never look at peanuts the same again. As another example, take this Ghostbusters movie photo. Boring. But introduce a photo of the actual miniaturized movie set, and again, bam, OMFG. Even when it comes to cats and animals, we’re hardwired to consume Cute, but prefer the cutest of the cute — that which expands our conception of cute. Yes, there is such a thing. If I think that it will also be proof to others that they aren’t dreaming, I’ll share. The stronger I feel this way (subconsciously or consciously), the more likely I am to hit send.
All of this begs the question of why a viral phenotype even occurs within us in the first place. Like most things in life, there’s a reason behind the reaction, and with viral content I believe it’s our species’ mechanism for making sense of the world around us and connecting across generations. By creating and spreading mind-expanding content, humans as a group learn how to adapt, conceptually explain, and revel in this thing we call life and the lives that came before. Take for example the BuzzFeed Time Machine. In a profound statement, navigating through the decades reveals that life in the 1950s was also not easy, going on set behind the scenes was just as much fun in 1960, and cats were just as cute in the 1920s. The actors change, but the movie remains remarkably the same. We’ve simply increased the velocity, upped the dosage, and expanded the scope.
Like any addiction, the bar is continually raised for what content triggers virality, particularly when you view dozens of posts per day like it’s your job (because it is my job…). As your knowledge lens grows, so does an all-consuming demand to expand it more. Welcome to our world today. We’ve entered a ‘that was so last week’ era where ‘novelty’, in the form of what we haven’t seen but could imagine seeing, is no longer enough. Our society now craves a special kind of hyper-concentrated content that can only come from completely outside our minds, and technology has advanced to a point where that urge can be immediately gratified. Cue BuzzFeed’s rapid rise to Internet stardom and the assembly of the smartest team of journalists and writers on the planet as talented guides to comb the net and produce photos, commentary, videos, and music that prove day-in-and-day-out that you’re awake and consistently capable of having your mind deliciously blown. This isn’t a fad, this is what’s next.