We all like to think of ourselves as trendsetters and how we practise a healthy dose of skepticism whenever we encounter something new. The reality, however, is we're more easily influenced than we would care to admit, to the point where we have to ask whether something is popular because it's good or just because it's popular.
That question has bene highlighted by research recently published in the journal Science, which looks at the behaviour of people reading online comments. Reported by The New York Times, it confirmed the obvious fact that if you approve an article, either by liking it or sharing it, someone who reads it is more likely to do the same, regardless of quality.
So far, so predictable but a surprising finding relating to negative articles emerged. A negative reaction to an article won't cause people to dislike it. Instead, it will result in others giving it a positive review instead.
If the findings show anything, it's just how easy we're swayed by 'popular' opinion. This is problematic when you consider how something goes viral in the first place. Getting a post or video to cross a certain threshold so that it gets a life of its own is one thing, but reaching that threshold requires a significant push from third-parties.
How Popularity Is Influenced
Consider how certain videos go viral. The majority of them aren't accidents, instead it's down to corporations or influential groups and individuals pushing it out and making it popular.
If you can cast your mind back to the early part of 2013, you will most certainly remember the 'Harlem Shake' and how you couldn't even visit a page without watching a video relating to it. It was a phenomenon where everyone had their own version on YouTube, unaware that it gathered momentum because of a few companies. One of which was Maker Studios, an agency specialising in making popular YouTube videos and partly owned by Time Warner.
Once it made its own version of the Harlem Shake and shared it across numerous channels, its popularity exploded as both brands and individuals jumped on the bandwagon, transforming it into the meme we know today.
Corporations made the trend reach a certain level of popularity and as a result, ordinary people made it one of the most popular memes this year. Whether you thought it was good or not at the time will vary, but ultimately individuals just followed what was popular without figuring out who or what drove the trend in the first place. The more popular something is, the more likely you're going to get involved, either by creating your own version, sharing it or interacting with it.
That ties back into the study mentioned earlier, which showed that users were more likely to respond positively to an article if it was already given a positive score. Seeing something being spread positively will in turn encourage you to do the same and you would be more inclined to share it. There's a narcissistic element in play here as well, who doesn't want to be the first to share something fun or interesting, but most of the time, we're playing to someone else's tune.
Of course, the hardest part about getting people to share content isn't making something good or worth sharing, it's figuring out a way to get noticed. Doing so without a major brand to push it is doable, but a significant challenge.