I got this question from a friend; “Why does everyone share this image of Bernie Sanders… I don’t get it…”.
Her question makes perfect sense:
Why would anyone want to share a photo of a sleeping old man?
The short answer
It could basically have been anything. But it became Bernie. People needed to relate to each other. And people were just waiting for something to share that was:
- Safe to share
- Makes ME unique (check the video)
- Had the right timing (which was set by the moment)
1. Safe to share
In order to understand why something goes viral you have to understand why people share things in the first place. And despite there being tons of individual reasons as to why people share, we can summarise them all by concluding – people want to belong.
People want to belong.
And the way we try to show that we belong is to publish the right type of content that helps other people relate to us, our identity, our intent and have them confirm that we exist.
The problem with this in the “social digital space” is that we need to be active for this relationship building to take place. And being active means we are at risk of doing the wrong thing.
So how do we eliminate the danger of alienating ourselves?
Well. We copy each other.
2. Make ME feel special
Funny fact is that most people think of themselves as special in one way or another. This shouldn’t be misinterpreted by thinking that all people are eccentric extroverts with an ambition to stand out.
No. On the contrary.
Only a very limited portion of people feel comfortable about stating their own opinion about any given topic. Remember; the risk of being expelled from the group.
But what my experience tells me from creating viral content is that many more people have the very accurate understanding that they are crappy content creators. Yet they still feel very misinterpreted by the world around them and long for a way to say they are special too.
It is important that a piece of viral content isn’t only safe to share. It also needs to help you communicate something special about yourself.
And so. It is important that a piece of viral content issn’t only safe to hare. It also needs to help you communicate something special about yourself. You need to be able to amend it in one way or another in order for it to feel like yours, but on a platform that otherwise makes it ok to share.
Small variations of the same thing.
It is safe to share as a topic, content or opinion. But you can put it into your own context.
3. And about right timing
The last thing that needs to be in place is that the timing should be right. There needs to be a need for either breaking tension or building tension. Ie. we are either tired or we are bored.
If there is too much tension – we need something unthreatening to break the deadlock
If we are bored – we need something that excites us
And this should not only be seen as a rule for photos but as a general rule for what creative you are using. People will be looking for content that helps them express themselves. And thus the meaning of any content you aim to produce for viral activity shouldn’t be created to communicate TO PEOPLE, but rather THROUGH PEOPLE. And all that is needed is for someone to post something that helps people say something about themselves, for the chain of events to take place.
The deadlock is usually broken when someone with social status picks up the meme and says it is ok to use it whilst some nerds/foot soldiers make it possible and show different ways of making it your own.
Summarising why Bernie worked
Everyone wanted to say something about the inauguration, but people were also tired of the serious nature and pressure that had been building over the past few days (and perhaps years).
And when considering the image of Bernie, released in the super tension of the inauguration day, cut out to be possible to mount on any background you wanted etc. It had all the components that was needed for it to go viral.
- In contrast to many other stories that could be talked about, speaking about Bernie sleeping on a chair was EXTREMELY SAFE
- By making Bernie into clip-art everyone could place him into their own context and thus communicate that they were a part of a group (the group who shared the Bernie stuff) whilst still being special
- And the timing was right because… well, because someone made it right. Someone took the picture out of context and helped people put it into their own context. Perhaps by chance.
And that is also what I replied to my friend. It is not that there is anything special about the Bernie photo. It just happened to become what people used to say something about themselves in a time when they needed to say something that felt safe. Let some anxiety out and have a laugh for a while. Like a flirt to each other and a very playful way of saying that we all still exist.
Like a flirt to each other and a very playful way of saying that we all still exist.
The basis for all viral successes the past few years
And it shares these components with Trumps election campaign in 2016, with the Ice Bucket Challenge, with the Black Lives Matter movement and the growth of social media posts by Daniel Wellington customers.
…in the ebb and flow of online dialogue and discussion, there is always timing for something.
And the funny part of it is that you really don’t have to wait for the timing if you are open to listen. Cause in the ebb and flow of online dialogue and discussion, there is always timing for something. You just have to figure out what and why.